Monday, August 13, 2012

Big Trash

Like most home buyers, I toured the house with my family, checking closet space and bathtubs and finally descended into the basement to see if it has any potential. It was a very large and dark basement mostly unfinished, but the scene in front of us was breathtaking. Thousands of glass jars and bottles of every conceivable shape and color, sparkling clean and neatly stacked in groups by size and shape, some in small pyramids, on a myriad of shelves, small tables and wooden crates. There were no labels on any of them and there were no tops. The ex-Marine Sergeant who built the house in the fifties and lived there ever since, must have spent a lot of time cleaning, processing, sorting and arranging glass containers for what seemed like an awful lot of years. Why did he do that? What did he see in those glass mazes he built in his basement? I never found out. We bought the house almost eight years ago, and had a “guy” come by and remove everything that was not nailed to the walls before the painters and floor refinishers showed up. Sgt. C.’s big collection of empty glass shells ended up as Big Trash, because although empty containers may hold certain fascination, particularly for those who lived through the Great Depression, there is absolutely nothing useful you can do with a basement full of glass.

We as a species are now collecting data. We’re not sure exactly why or how we’re going to use it, but we are convinced that we cannot, should not, discard any electronically recorded piece of information. You may clear your browsing history on your own computer, but somewhere, somehow, someone retains that information. You may delete all your text messages from your own phone, but they may still exist in some database somewhere in some cloud. You may delete your old emails, but somewhere there will still be a record for them. Your tweets, your Facebook messages, all other social media participation, every syllable you ever typed and every tag or image you touched, all these things are being neatly catalogued and stored in some data basement somewhere. And now we have apps that most of what they do, other than show you that cheesecake has more calories than turnips, is to collect even more bits and pieces of information and add them to that big basement in the sky.

Previous generations of human beings created as much data as we do. They shopped and traveled and engaged in conversations. They kept diaries and every single one ate, slept, walked, breathed in and out, had a heartbeat, loved and hated things, experienced profound happiness and despair, and when all was said and done, discarded the containers of life without a second thought. We are the generation of the Great Information age, and just like Sgt. C. we feel compelled to keep everything that was scarce and hard to come by only a few years ago. We talk about treasure troves and are so very certain that all those mountains of carefully scrubbed and meticulously arranged pieces of information will yield some miraculous result any day now. And if it’s not clear what miracle exactly, that’s because we need more data and we need to arrange it in other ways. I wonder if Sgt. C. was consciously shopping for foods packaged in glass containers, just so he can add another shiny piece of the puzzle to his collection.

I’d like to imagine that when Mrs. Sgt. C. whipped up a batch of her famous tomato sauce, she would stroll down to the basement and pick a nice jar to store the sauce in, or when Sgt. C. brought her flowers for her birthday, she would pick the nicest blue glass container to put the fresh daisies in. She probably never had to buy those ugly plastic Tupperware things either. There was some utility in Sgt. C.’s glass collection, but did it really warrant giving up an entire basement and countless hours of maintenance work? There is some utility in our big data collection too. When we need to sell tomato sauce or flowers to people, we can dig through our data basement and find just the right message and the right people to send that message to. Today’s Mad Men need not be as “creative” as Don Draper had to be in order to increase sales and profits for clients.

If Sgt. C. could have collected all the glass jars in the world and if he could have shared them with all people in this world, nobody would have needed to worry about storage for their secret recipe potato salad ever again. If we could listen to, collect and analyze every heartbeat in the world, we could instantly identify impeding disaster, and correct the problem. We could be saving lives judged worth saving. If we could know in real-time when people are sad, we could make them happy in real-time. If we could know in advance which people would become ill and exactly when, we could tell them and maybe treat them if it made economic sense. Eventually, we could ensure that all our babies are born healthy and with proper monitoring live long, productive and happy lives.

Mrs. Sgt. C. died at the turn of the new millennium, and Sgt. C. died a few short years after that. He never knew what eventually befell his glass containers collection. I am grateful for that. Perhaps if someone other than us would have bought his old house, those beautiful glass jars would still be there today and perhaps more would have been added. Perhaps a pattern would have emerged and something great would have happened. But it did not because I trashed his life’s work. We will most likely all die before our collection of digital shells of life will yield any benefits or alter the definition of humanity in any significant manner, and we will never know if our data basements will be preserved or relegated to the Big Trash pile. I am grateful for that too.

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