The Legacy of a Digital Generation

This is the first of a series of posts about the legacy of our digital culture. We invite you to share your own stories and ideas.

One hundred years from now, will anyone know what you did today, or even that you were alive? Did you leave any trail marking your existence, or did you leave no trace? Did you send someone a birthday card? Did you write a love note?

We often begin our research classes with these questions.

Students initially look puzzled, and then begin to back-track through their day, searching for a lasting, physical piece of ephemera related to their life. Starbucks coffee -- slid credit card, no receipt; text messages -- 25; paper for English class -- submitted online.

Most of us have trouble remembering a single instance where we produced a tangible remnant of ourselves -- solid, irrefutable evidence that we existed in this day, this month, this year.

In class we pass around a child's school copybook dated 1838 where you can trace a little boy's tentative progress through the complexity of mathematics and the art of 19th century penmanship. In the swoop of his letters you can literally feel his personality and determination. You can watch him puzzle through math problems that get increasingly more difficult for him:

Seven gentlemen met at an inn and were so well pleased with their host and with each other that they agreed to stay as long as they together with their host could sit every day in a different position at dinner. How long must they have stayed at said inn to have fulfilled their agreement?

Next we circulate a box of frail receipts from the Wheeler family, dated from 1803 to 1874. There are emotional years represented, with many coffins purchased:

Received of Elizabeth Wheeler twelve dollars and fifty cents it Being for a coffin this 25 March 1836.

But in the same box we find an 1874 receipt for 10 yards of white fabric ($3.75) and 5 yards of white satin ribbon ($1.00). Students can put together the stories, and feel the patterns of 19th century life.

What do libraries collect now that mark the true passage of our daily lives? Email transcripts? Text messages? These can only convey the generic, impersonal click of the keyboard. There is little emotion attached to this ephemera. Will computerized memorabilia evoke in those who find it later the same passion for history and discovery as that little boy's copybook? We doubt it. And then there is the complexity of collecting and retaining digital material, as well as the machinery needed to read it. How many of you still have a computer that will accept a floppy diskette?

Other than our birth and death certificates, will anyone in the future know what really happened to us today?