Sunday, August 7, 2022

Kipple 'n bytes: Thoughts on what we do and don't preserve

In recent days, I've coincidentally read two things about adult children cleaning out a house full of their late parents' belongings. The first is the short story "Cleanout" in Naomi Kritzer's stellar 2017 collection, "Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories." It's ultimately a sci-fi story, but buying into the fantastical part isn't necessary to appreciate the truth of a passage like this:
"Because there was a lot to go through. Our parents were immigrants from some former Soviet republic with a lot of mountains, and after coming to the U.S. with just the clothes they were wearing, they apparently never threw anything away ever again. We all started in random spots. Magda with the kitchen, packing up bags of warped cookie sheets and chipped frying pans with the nonstick coating peeling off to donate to whichever local charity took housewares. Nora in the basement, because so much down there was water-damaged and mold-saturated she could just haul it straight out to the Dumpster we'd rented."
The other piece I read, which was part of my editing work for LNP | LancasterOnline but didn't feel like work at all, was "What is kipple, and how did it take over my life?" by Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian. In the August 3 piece, she writes about the long, slow process of cleaning out her late father's house, including the seemingly endless drawers she has come to dread going through.

And what is kipple? Well, here comes the sci-fi element again. It's an invented word from Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — the book that served as the basis for the 1982 movie Blade Runner

"The word is used by the book’s protagonist, Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter assigned to kill some uncannily human-like robots who have escaped involuntary servitude on Mars and returned to Earth, where they try to pass as people.

"So what, exactly, is kipple?

"'Kipple,' Deckard explains in the book, 'is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. [Dick’s incredibly prescient vision of a digital newspaper.] When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there’s twice as much of it.'"
For Abcarian, the kipple she must deal with involves exhausting numbers of tiny decisions. Should she keep various roles of tape that might come in handy? A magnifying glass? Rubber bands? The "electric cords for ancient tech" or "all those stick-on felt circles that protect the wood floors from scratches"? 

I think many of us can relate to this. I was fortunate, in way. I was able to tackle about 95% of Mom's possessions while she was still alive. My sister Adriane and other family members helped, too. Over the course of many weekends over many years, we cleaned out the house on Oak Crest Lane in Wallingford that was filled with four generations' worth of stuff. Floor by floor, room by room, closet by closet, shelf by shelf and drawer by drawer. And we got to do it with Mom there. So it wasn't a funereal atmosphere, and we were able to ask her about the things we were sorting through to determine whether it was trash, something to donate or something to keep. We got to hear the stories and the context. So that made it almost fun, even it it meant a labor-intensive weekend of moving trunks and filing cabinets in the damp basement, going through three dozen half-used spice bottles, battling cobwebs in the garage and shed, and half-crouching to avoid banging one's head on the beams in the super-humid attic, which had the highest percentage of stuff that went straight to the trash.

And, yes, so many drawers. But with Mom there, they were fun to sort through. Each one a tiny adventure into the past. A chance to laugh, wonder or shake our heads. Perhaps all three at once. 

I can fully understand how the joy would be mostly absent if you had to go through all those drawers alone, though I'm probably an outlier in that I still find such excavation fascinating. (Hence this blog.)

So, I have a Catch-22 of sorts. I'd love to be around as a participant/observer, like Mom was, when my accumulation of stuff is sorted through and sent off to wherever it best belongs. I want to share in the rediscoveries and explain the meanings and provenance behind certain things. I can consult on what's junk and what might have some shreds of value. 

On the other hand — and this is the part that's never fully in our control — I fear leaving others with the job of having to sort through everything without me. The thought of leaving them all that stressful work that's my fault for being a ... well, packrat isn't quite the word. How about I call myself a "history hoarder"? So much of what I've accumulated is paper. There are the books, yes. But also the ephemera. So much ephemera. So many printouts, too. Printouts of articles, blog entries, emails, Facebook posts and tweets. My envelopes full of this stuff are semi-jokingly referred to as the printernet. As in, "Chris prints out the internet."

But am I wrong to do so?

I've written often about the preservation of online content. It's the thrust of the whole Lost Corners subsection of posts. I'm far from the only one with these concerns. I mean, it appears that we can't even preserve crucial digital information at the highest levels of government and national security these days; what hope is there for all those bytes of data that are culturally relevant but far less critical to democracy?

To that end, I recently read (and will be printing out!) a Twitter thread by The Cultural Tutor (@culturaltutor) about the Digital Dark Age. Some key points made there:
"99.9% of the world's information is stored digitally, and one day it might either be lost or inaccessible. ... It's tempting to imagine that people in the future will know more about the 21st century than any previous era in human history. After all, the internet and digital technology has allowed us to document literally everything. But that's not necessarily true... 

"So what is the Digital Dark Age? It's the idea that the 21st century will one day become an 'informational black hole,' that there'll be a scarcity of records from our era. How? This has two elements: the longevity and the accessibility of our current forms of data storage.

"Hard drives last for three to five years before they begin to degrade and eventually fail, while solid-state drives rarely last longer than a decade. So unless you transfer the data on your laptop or phone - it'll be gone in a dozen years.

"What about the cloud? Information on the cloud is stored on servers, which is also where most digital information is now stored. But servers last for ten years at most before they need to be replaced.

"All of which means that, without constant maintenance and management, most digital information will degrade and be lost in less than two decades. So all that content online which documents life in the 21st century is far from permanent. Quite the opposite..."
The full thread goes into much great detail on just how worried we should be about the preservation of digital information. So, yes, I'll keep printing things and putting them into envelopes. The questions then become: Will the envelopes ever be opened? And who will open them?

* * *

Note: The photo at the top of this post is my little plastic chest of drawers. It started, years ago, as the home of my office supplies at my work desk at the York Daily Record. Over the years, I've filled it with all sorts of little treasures, baubles and bits of ephemera. And I've forgotten half of what I've put in there. At 9 inches wide by 7 inches tall, with 15 drawers, it doesn't take up much space. And there's still a little bit of room inside, amazingly, for some small things to be tucked inside in future years.

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