long . lines and ripples

Photos in the Stream

river in wilderness

I have used Google Photos for the last several years, but I started using Picasa, a photo album service that was purchased and integrated into Google, a long time before that. All my albums from those early years are still around, along with new albums I have created since: more than 75 albums in which I hand-selected every picture.1

At the same time, I send all my photos to a never-ending photo stream, which Google allows me to scroll through like one giant timeline, going all the way back to old family photos from the early 2000s.

What this means is that I have a natural experiment in archival strategies. The albums are are an active approach, where I store what I myself chose to remember. The feed is passive: organizing itself by date so that I can scroll back, seemingly without end.

As I go back through all of my active archives (albums), I find that I remember each album like it was a distinct unit of time. Since I remember, for example, taking a trip to Scotland, when I see that album, I associate the photos with my memory of the event that is both more than the photos and triggered by those photos. I remember events in that album that are not actually pictured, and the photos help me remember aspects of those events that would not otherwise have been available to my conscious recall. The archive helped me consolidate a memory that already had shape in my existing memory. The event had a personality already, and the photos hang off its existing structure like decorations.

For the passive system: I scroll back through my feed, and timeline itself is the structure. I can conceptualize, in the abstract, that time is a stream that unrolls itself forward. But I don’t remember events in time that way. I remember time as a series of events, with hazy gaps in between. So when I am presented with the photos from a continuous stream of time, I am more of a disconnected observer of my own life. I don’t know what is coming next because I do not remember the exact sequencing from one picture to the next. But when I see them, I make new memories as much as I recall existing ones.

A lot of these pictures from the last two years are of my son. The nature of smartphones, especially with a child, is that I find I am always taking pictures, sometimes just in anticipation that my son will do something interesting; or to send in a text or a chat. But I have no memory of the circumstances around those pictures, or what was happening in them. They are just an ordinary chunk of time. So the picture becomes a reminder, an incentive to recall that day. I ask myself: was I doing anything special? Why did I take it? What else was happening around this time?

The passive archive, the stream, gives me a structure that is somewhere between a reminder and a memory. It gives me specifics for a time and place that I only know in general terms.

There is a difference here between experience and data. The albums were an experience that I’ve archived. The stream is data that happens to relate to something I have experienced. The stream is data that answers the worry that I will lose the ordinary time attached to these photos. But as compelling as it is to not lose the photos from even the most mundane day, the photos in the stream are not completely mine even when I re-encounter them.

Data needs to be complete, or (a subset of complete) representative to be useful to someone else. The mundane is what makes it representative. Representative of what? Of “what it is that one photographs” in 2019. Maybe that is why Google is willing to store them.

  1. And I’m still in the habit. My most recent album is from Thanksgiving 2019, just a few weeks ago.[]