The Permanence of Ephemera

11/18/2008 11:20:00 pm

I was listening to the radio in the car tonight on the way home from a parent info night at my kids school and thinking about email. Many people don't regard email as meaningful communication; it's not really connecting because it's so transient. Like online ecards. All this online stuff is so ephemeral. It's not as meaningful as stuff that takes more time to do, like sending a "real" card.

I don't buy that.

The ephemera of online "stuff", stuff you can't touch, is an illusion. Places like the Internet Archive and (actually, they're in cahoots with each other) allow you to store an unlimited amount of your digital "stuff" online for free, forever.

This got me thinking about my students class blogs. Some of them are four years old now.

Those students (who were in grade 12 at the time) are in University now or have entered the workforce and are living their lives far beyond the boundaries of the classroom where we met. The papers they handed in, the exams they wrote, the assignments they did in class, all the "real" stuff they did is long gone. Irretrievable really.

The digital stuff they did, the scribe posts they wrote, their reflections on where they were in their learning and what was going on in their lives as it impacted them at school, the digital photographs they took, the projects and assignments they published online, they're all still there and they will likely remain there for a considerable amount of time to come. They will likely be able to show off their finest stuff to their kids. Perhaps even their grandkids some day.

It seems to me these digital ephemera have a lot more permanence than any of the paper and pencil work they did in school.

I received an email from a student of mine from about four years back. It was a thank you note. The kind of note a teacher is blessed with rarely. Perhaps once in a career. I'm keeping it. Backed up in two different online spaces. I don't know why, I just want to. It hasn't added any clutter to a busy household with four kids in it. It has added meaning to what I did four years ago and what I'll continue trying to do tomorrow morning.

Just because digital "stuff" is easy to create doesn't make it less valuable. In many ways it adds value, and permanence.

Then again, maybe it isn't so easy to make "digital stuff"; meaningful digital stuff. I'm still trying to get my head around it all.

Photo Credit: Elegant green wisp by flickr user Cheekybikerboy

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  1. That's an interesting observation, Darren, knocking the tacit assumption that something physically tangible is really less ephemeral. And I cannot locate those old card messages or thesis chapters by keyword search ;-)

    Also noting is that I have web content now 15 years old, that still works while most anything else I developed multimedia wise of that vintage will not even run on a modern operating system.

    However, I don't think the level of "meaningfulness" has anything to do with whether it is on paper or a server... and it should always take more work, effort to create it.

    Kudos for you for seeing that student work stays alive; it is annoying how much some institutions commit student online work to ephermeralism.

  2. I think in many ways we as may need to reconsider media and what it was (such as a chalkboard would have at some point been media) and where we've gotten to. Or what technology was and where it is and stop thinking of technology as just computers and "digital." After all at some point paper and pencils were also "technologies" right?

  3. We make 'kulich' for Easter as a Russian tradition. My grandmother's generation do not consider one that is made using an electric mixer as 'authentic'. It has to be made of LOVE and MUSCLES, mixed by hand. Arguments even occur because of this, and the strict adherance to these traditional methods becomes canonical. In my mind, the handwritten card vs email or ecard is the same sort of thing. You can only show that you care by spending time travelling to the shop to stand their choosing the appropriate card (the longer you take, the more love), and then, after you've written the card, you have to physically go somewhere to send it off. How does an email show sweat and love? I also think that people are just used to having something 'in the hand' to appreciate that it's real.

  4. @Alan Thanks for the encouraging words. Of course, you're right about "meaningfulness" not being a function of it being in paper or electronic form and it probably does have something to do with it taking more effort. Yet, sometimes the effort is small and the meaning is large. I just returned to work from a 10 week leave of absence; I was n parental leave after the birth of our fourth child, our third daughter Sadie. Some folks have made a point of dropping by my class to say "Hi. Welcome back! How's your daughter?" The effort was minimal, the meaning wasn't. Same with ecards. Someone took time out of their day to send something nice. That's meaningful. Of course, the more trouble someone goes to in order to do something nice raises increases it's value on the meaning scale (whatever that is). I think your point is bang on.

    Your last comment struck me.

    My school division is looking to host a Wordpress-mu installation. I can't help thinking of that as a step backwards. When they no long want to caretake the digital artifacts housed there, say several years from now, they'll likely deep-6 it all. The stuff my kids published on Blogger will likely still be around. I wish they'd spend the money on PD instead of trying to create something that already exists freely online.

    @ice I'm not sure I follow what you're saying here. Come again?

    @tshenko I know what you mean about having something "in the hand", something you can hold and turn over in your hands as a keepsake. However, my wife uses a mixer to make bread every week. She used to mix it by hand. It still tastes great. I buy the "love" part but not necessarily the "muscles".