Future funerals

 by Martin Belam, 1 March 2004

This train of thought developed whilst I was at Elbow's gig at Brixton Academy the other week. They played a track called "Scattered Black & Whites" from their first album, which seems to me (and I could be wrong) about the kind of family memories triggered by looking at old photographs, and earlier they had played the track "Fugitive Motel". The video that accompanied the track consisted of photographs and postcards from troops in the First World War to home.

It set off a really melancholy thing in my head about funerals. I'm at an age in life where over the last few years I have attended the funerals of a generation who came before me. In nearly all of them, we have ended up at a house or a bar where photographs are produced. Sadly I often learnt a lot more about some of my elderly relatives from looking at these photographs after they died than I ever learnt in conversation with them. I guess I never asked the right questions.

It occurred to me that there is a future digital media scenario I haven't really begun planning for.

There is a wealth of physical media about me when I was a child. Polaroids, black & white pictures, and some weird pictures produced by the cheap colour camera my parents could afford which seemed to be green, black & white rather than full colour. One of my Aunts even has some cine footage of me as a toddler visiting a zoo in 197x, now safely transferred to VHS. Then there is a whole slew of pictures taken by my parents of me scowling with a shocking 80's haircut - ironically mostly taken in the 1990's.

However, in recent years, the photographic evidence is all stuck in a directory on my PC. Or on my phone. Or on a couple of archived websites. For example I have several CDs given to me by friends of photos from my wedding, but the bulk of them we have only ever viewed on the screen rather than printing out. When my PC had a seizure a couple of months back I naturally vowed to burn everything onto CD and start a healthier back-up regime. But you can't look at pictures on a CD unless you have a machine and some software to view them.

I'm beginning to have this terrible vision of my future funeral, with my wife apologetically saying:

We would have had some photographs of the years 2001 to 20xx, but we lost them all when our PC imploded and we found our back-up CDs were corrupted, around the same time as Martin's web-hosting company went bust and he lost all the photographs he put online. Mind you, after the EU granted the European JPEG patent to Forgent in 2007 he'd had to take most of them down anyway or pay the $7.99 per image licensing fee. And we were going to play his favourite tune. But when he finally encoded all his old analogue vinyl into digital in the mid two-thousand-&-xties he used the upcoming open-source OV³ format. The lack of DRM encoding means it won't work on the Windows Media Centre powered music system they have in the crematorium. So we're just going to play the Doctor Who theme to see him out instead.

Oh well, if the last bit turns out to be true maybe it won't be such a bad do after all.


Watching the video of my wife's parents getting married in 1964 last night, much the same thoughts crossed my mind. It was a transfer from Cine to VHS, so it has already survived from one generation of media to another - yet before long it will require another to survive (to what - DVD? Digital Tape?) Similarly the digital video of our baby will no doubt require the same before long. Yet the photos of his great-great-grandparents from the turn of the last century survive, fragile yet still in their original format. It does seem that with the exponential growth in formats - 4 different types of media card for cameras alone - such choices become equally difficult and the easiest attitude is one of ignoring it. The fate of the BBC Doomsday project from 1986 illustrates the danger of that.

Oh and don't forget that that haircut is preserved in numerous school and house photos and magazines as well....

currybet, the answer is simple.

get a marble statue in your image, with the words "i f*ckin ruled, dudes" carved into it.

that's all they need to know!

let them guess the rest...

on a slightly different note.

there's a proposal to store the 'basic rules for civilisation' into an indestructible, always understandable form.

i can't remember where to find the debate online. but basically, the issue revolves around things like:
- if society collapses, what are the most basic principles we need to restart it from absolute scratch? (agriculture, learning, mechanics, etc)
- how do you represent that information so that someone with no knowledge of our species, or of former collapsed civilisations can understand it (pictorially, flow diagrams, etc)
- how do you store that information? (carved into rock, burned into platinum blocks, etc)
- where do you store it? (away from geological faults, water sources, near to good farmland, in a windless desert, etc)
- how many copies do you need?

ooh, all sorts of stuff.

as for all your digi-memories. aren't micr*s*ft developing something to take care of that?

Well I think the "basic rules for civilisation" would have to make a damn site more sense than the plaque they stuck on the side of Pioneer 10

that's not "basic rules for civilisation", that's "dudes! this is where we are, pop by for a cuppa! (ps, we can add up and everything)"

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