Good afternoon from Amagansett, NY.
The weather outside is stunningly nice, the dogs are dozing and I am pondering what to write.
For starters, we moved last week from Brooklyn Heights to DUMBO. Now that's not all that far, not even a kilometer, maybe 800m. But it's a very different neighborhood with different vibe. It seems more "active" than our little section of the Heights, and no I can't decipher what I mean by that either. Our new place is slightly smaller than our old place, by about one room, which means we're going to be actively pitching stuff for the next month or so.
I made an executive decision last week that I no longer needed any Sydney Olympic Games memorabilia. Also pitched a collection of 2400 baud modems (strange how I never found a use for them again), a SCSI initiator device circa 1989, an Apple //e (which was promptly scavenged), and a variety of other electronic odds and ends. It costs more to store some of this stuff than it ever was worth to me, or the (potential) expense of replacing it.
I think we've become too sedentary, staying in one place for a long
time means we accumulate a lot of stuff
which one might use some day
but more likely we won't.
We're getting fatter, not just physically, but all of the historical baggage
and routine detritus of our lives is sticking around longer.
Moving helps to bring a sort of clarity, a sort of focus on that baggage.
In the physical world I think we see this is the growing spread of landmark districts in New York City. On the surface these seem wonderful: Let's save the historic buildings of a former era. Let's show off the architecture of our forebears. But I've come to think there's a darker side, there's a cost, an expense, that isn't accounted for when you landmark entire regions.
To be clear, I'm not against landmarking specific buildings. Perhaps a building is the archetypical structure designed by an architect. Perhaps a famous person lived there, or an historical act occurred inside. But more and more it seems to me than landmark districts have become solely a tool to prevent development. It's not that people want the warehouse — where countless bags of goods were stored and processed for decades (before its abandonment for decades) — preserved, they don't want it to be replaced by something (in Brooklyn this something is typically an ugly condo building). I guess it's easier to force preservation of an existing thing, than contemplate the value to the community of the potential new thing.
So we preserve entire districts, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Fulton Ferry are three nearby. The structures are (mosty) wonderful, retaining their 19thC. charms. But there's a cost to the community involved which isn't acknowledged, isn't accounted for. These three districts are the closest in Brooklyn to Manhattan, they're one, maybe two stops away on the subway, and they represent some of the most expensive real estate in the country outside Manhattan.
The increasing value of residences in these districts means that those with lesser means ("lesser means" in NYC is a typical middle-class income elsewhere in the US) have to live farther and farther out. It becomes a sort of redlining, we claim we want to preserve the buildings, but districts also get sold as a way to increase home values. Increase the home values and you ensure that only "certain" types of people will live in the area.
Now, Brooklyn Heights has a sizable amount of apartments for rent, in addition to the homes, condos and coöps. But I've also looked at the census tract data and it's also one of the wealthiest, whitest neighborhoods in the city. And I blame this, in some part, on the landmark district.
Another cost which is not accounted for is the cost to the homeowner (whether it's a standalone home, condo, coöp or other structure). Sure, the home value increases by being landmarked, but you lose some control over what you can do with the structure. Want to replace the windows, even with visually comparably authentic 19thC. windows? Be prepared for a multi-year effort. Want to make structural changes to bring your 1875 era house into the 21st Century? Good luck. It's easier to move to a new home with the changes already in place than walk through the DOB and LPC bureaucracies. And you may be right, it should be hard to change a historic structure, it shouldn't be easy to destroy its historic value. Still, by blanketing entire neighborhoods with the landmark designation, by declaring all of the buildings to have historic value, I think that you cheapen the value of landmarking over all and diminish the value of truly historic structures.
By declaring that everything must be preserved, I think we diminish the value of the individual things we're attempting to preserve.
How many people have all of their email? I do. Mostly. I certainly have copies of email I sent and received from 1988 or so into my time at Carnegie Mellon. I have some email from my CMU years, and fragments of email (mostly personal archives) from my first few years at IBM. But around 1993, 1994 the cost of data storage dropped just enough that I was able to retain pretty much all email I received and sent. With the exception of a couple of startups which I separated from, I have almost all email sent or received for close to twenty years. And for what purpose? It's in various formats, it's not indexed, it's not searchable. I didn't necessarily set out to save it all, it just happened. It was easier to retain it then sift through it occasionally to weed out the "truly valuable" emails.
So somewhere in that pile is the first emails I received from my parents, as well as the last emails I received from them. The first email I received from my grandmother (who's been AOLing it longer than Google's been around).
Many of these emails are truly, dismally, mundane:
From: costel...@..netcom.com (Ed Costello) To: ardmore...@...att.net (Kathleen Costello) Date: Thusday, November 18 1999 11:29:05 +1100 Subject: Flying back tomorrow, UAL 816 SYD-SFO 'm flying back tomorrow on UAL 816, arriving in San Francisco around 6:30 a.m. PST and Chicago around 5:30 p.m. CST. Can either of you pick me up at O'Hare? -- --epc
Actually, I'd wager that most of the personal email I have is that mundane, that routine. The business email I have (this is a reconstruction for reasons I'll get into in a sec) is also relatively routine and mundane:
From: Ed Costello/Armonk/Company @ CompanyUS To: A Company Employee/Somers/Company @ CompanyUS cc: An Executive in my chain/Armonk/Company @ CompanyUS Date: some time in December 1997 Subject: Re: www.company.com.java You wrote: > We printed www.company.com.java as the URL on 10,000 mugs > which we are distributing tomorrow at a trade show. I will > have to escalate you if you do not approve this URL as we > have gone to great expense to create and distribute these mugs. ".java" is not a valid top-level domain. There is absolutely nothing I can do to make this domain work. The only correct URL for The Company's Java presence is www.company.com/java (you can drop the "www." if you want, company.com/java will also work). It isn't a question of escalation, there is no ".java" domain. -- -ed costello &c.
My business mail archives are mostly like this. Occasionally there are a few gems like where I tried to work out a naming scheme for the nascent Global Web Architecture (I'd proposed www-NN.country-code.company.com where country-code reflected the hosting centre. We launched with that initially but eventually dropped the country-code entirely from the domain names for reasons I can go into over a nice consulting contract). Alas, my business mail archives have two problems:
- They are in Lotus Notes databases.
- They are in encrypted Lotus Notes databases.
So, while I do have them, they are practically unusable to me. At the moment. But yet I hold onto them.
One reason is cost: there's probably 2gb of email stored on all of three CDs. The cost to storing the CDs is practically zero. The potential value to recovering the data on the CDs is high, but only if someone (me, someone from IBM, etc.) finds value in it, otherwise the data have no value at all.
There's a third problem to the mail archives: they're stored on CDs, which are fading over time. I could transfer them to a hard drive but oddly, there's a cost to that. They're not valuable enough to me to have ready access to them (which would be impossible anyway since #1 my Lotus Notes id expired long ago and I can't decrypt the contents and #2 they're in Lotus Notes format, which only a mysterious band of elves from Westford, MA understand).
Since leaving IBM and mostly non-working for the past six years, I've managed to amass another 2-3Gb of email archives, in Microsoft's Outlook format. Now, as long as I use Outlook they're accessible and searchable (mostly: Outlook does not allow you to search across data stores, only within, which makes a search for an item of unknown timeframe to be a complete pain in the ass). And certainly there is a class of email which I have found incredibly valuable to retain: the myriad account creation statements, password statements, various receipts, etc. I mostly manage to remember to copy my "e-receipts" folder from year to year, but then forget to tell Outlook not to archive items older than this year and invariably discover than the emails are scattered amongst my year-by-year archives.
Why do we hold onto all of this crap?
In New York we have a legend about the Collyer Brothers. These were two brothers who lived in a brownstone in Harlem in the early half of the 20th Century. They were hoarders. They filled each and every floor of their brownstone with newspapers, books, furniture, all sorts of crap. They engineered their, for lack of a better term, filing system so that they had mazes within the house to prevent people from stealing their very, very valuable copies of the New York Herald and Collier's and what not.
The Collyer Brothers came to an end when Langley died after a newspaper tunnel collapsed upon him. Blind Homer, dependent on Langley for food and water, died after not being fed for several days. Homer was found first hours after his death, Langley nearly a month after Homer had died. All of those newspapers, telephone books, all of those items collected from life's detritus amounted to nothing of value to the Brothers, instead it killed them.
I am saving newspapers for Homer, so that when he regains his sight he can catch up on the news.
Langley Collyer as quoted in the Wikipedia entry
When my mother died I spent nearly seven months clearing stuff from the old family home. There were boxes after boxes of bills and receipts. There were clippings of articles from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. There were many boxes of papers and research from her litigation with the Village of Downers Grove and 3M and some painting company. There was no key, no index, no table of contents. Other than a fast flip-through, there was no way I could read each and every document to discern what was truly important (either to me as her son, to me as the executor of the estate, or to her or my father. Oddly, when my father died in 2000 we found almost nothing of value to him. Some business records, other items, but he had thrown or given away much of what he valued).
So I threw almost all of it away. The remainder, a finely culled 16 boxes of papers, sits in a storage locker in Lemont, IL, waiting for me to again find the time to sift through. Most of these boxes contain the results of her years of geneology research and a few other odds and ends.
History is written by historians
My friend Alex Wright has a wonderful book out now: Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages. I read a couple of draft copies last year and found it to be a fun survey of the history of managing information, the different schemes people have tried, the different directions electronic information could have flowed, the failures that have occurred.
We commonly hear that
History is written by the victors.
My American Civil War is a Southerner's War of Northern Aggression.
One person's Six Day War is another's نكسة.
One of the insights from Alex's book I learned was that traditionally the first thing
the victors did was to destroy the library of the losing side.
Now, that is a horrible way to edit down the quantity of information saved from one generation to the next. But is necessary?
Everything may be miscellaneous, but everything is not valuable either. We don't need to retain every last bit of information, every last bit of paper, every last physical object or structure created over time. It leads to a stagnant, static, sclerotic society (I should trademark that, in case I could use it in the future).
I am going to disappoint the four or five people who have read this far, but I have no idea, no magic bullet, no ingenious business proposal to address this. I'm not even sure it is a legitimate "problem". How can you criticize individual acts to save mementos, personal treasures? Still, I think we are reaching a dangerous point as a society where we mass-landmark and mass-protect all sorts of things, buildings, personal items, information. History is filtering away. It's learning from experience. It's destroying the past and building something new. Sometimes it's better, many times it's not. But that's what we have done as humans for thousands of years.
I think that distorting society so that everything is valuable, so that everything must be retained, is dangerous because it cheapens the very value of the things we want to keep. Some buildings in Brooklyn Heights are historic and of value to succeeding generations. Some emails we send and receive, just like some letters of our forebears, have value, but many do not. We generate billions, trillions of chunks of information every day, and except at Enron, seem to save it all.
I guess what I'm looking for, what I'm interested in (and perhaps, here's the nascent insanely great business idea) is a method, a process to educate us in what to keep and what to discard, and how to do that in a non-elitist, non-classist, non-violent way, if at all possible. And perhaps it's not, perhaps we need the victors to come and destroy the libraries occasionally. After all, if we valued the contents, the catalogs of newspapers, books, knick-knacks, that tassel from the Benet Academy Class of '85, if we valued these things then we would "win" whatever the battle is, otherwise why hold onto it all?