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Will our digital footprint eventually reveal the truth about us? Or, what will we leave behind?

Picture credit:  Smabs Sputzer

Short of time? Skinny version hereAspin's Essentials here.

Who knows what happened to them?

I don't know for sure where that school photograph was taken.  It's believed to be Manchester, England in 1910.  

What is for sure is those kids will most likely be long dead.

Did they find "it"?

What kind of lives did they have?  What mattered to them?  What were their hopes and dreams?  What did they expect from life?  And as the years passed, did they ever find what they might have called "happiness"?  Were they conscious of such a concept?  Or were their lives so focused on the struggle to make a living they didn't have chance to discover how to make a life? Perhaps some of them did build meaningful lives and were grateful for the good things?  Who knows?

What we leave behind, fist fighting, and a beautiful princess.

I've been thinking about one idea that makes our lives different from theirs, and its impact could last forever, good or bad.  I'll tell you about it in a min, but first, let's talk about school discos, bare knuckle fist fighting, and falling in love with an Indian Princess.
The other night I took my six year old boy to his "school disco".  The school building's been around since the 19th century, so it's seen thousands of kids enjoy the fun and excitement of discos, or whatever kind of parties they had in say, 1910, about the time of that old photo.
Seeing Alex having a fantastic time was great.  Like most things he does, it brought back memories of my life at the same age, and how I loved the chance to let rip showing off at our school's discos.  Doesn't seem long ago in some ways.  In other ways, it's ancient history.

Photos and videos.

I've loads of photos of Alex having fun, and quite a few videos.  I have no videos of me as a kid, just a handful of pictures, and I know of only one or two from my teenage years. 
I was brought up by my grandparents. My grandad died when I was nine, and gran in 1996.  I don't have any close relatives who recall memories of when I was growing up, all the things I used to do, or what my gran and grandad were like.  Though that stuff's alive in my memory, it would be nice, from time to time, to hear things about my younger life from someone else who remembers those amazing times that shaped me.
That's why it was excellent to see my "auntie Gillian" the other day (really she's my first cousin once removed!), the only person I'm in contact with who knew me as a kid.  She gave me a photo that transported my mind back in time, and sparked my imagination.  She gave me a photo of Clogger Jack.

Clogger Jack.


Clogger Jack is my great, great, grandfather.  He died in 1931 but it was amazing to see this photo taken around 1900.  All I know about Clogger Jack is what Gillian told me:  he worked as a steeplejack, and as a bare knuckle fist fighter in Blackburn, Lancashire, he was a pretty tough guy!  His brother, Luke, is said to have fallen in love with and married an India Princess - that's a story I'll definitely be following up!
The point is, we know so very little of Clogger Jack and his brother Luke.  They don't have a "digital footprint".  They didn't take photos and put 'em on FLICKR.  They never wrote an e-mail, took a digital video for YouTube, or wrote a comment on someone's blog.  All I know of them is a couple of pieces of information passed on by word of mouth, and I've no idea how accurate it is.

Things will not be the same for us or our kids!  - our digital footprint could, in theory, stick around forever!

I wonder if my son Zach inherited 1/64th of Clogger Jack's genes?

If you want to know about someone, you'll probably start by doing an online search.  It's likely you'll find all kinds of stuff about pretty much anyone you want. 
In theory, our online details will be around for a long while, perhaps forever.  Our kids, and their kids, will grow up in a connected world where information is freely available.  We are just getting used to what that might mean, but they'll know nothing else.
Whilst I know almost nothing about Clogger Jack, and beyond my own family experience, relatively little of my grandparents, my kids will know lots of things about me, and you.  Many of us have already left a massive digital trail.

So, what do we want to leave behind?

Leave behind, not just in the sense of a legacy after we're gone, but in terms of how we are known and perceived in our lives now and in future.  We know this Internet stuff won't just disappear, we'll have to live with it, good or bad.
Here's the good news, and the bad.
Think about this:  Perhaps our "digital footprint" will, on balance, reveal who we really are.  What I mean is, what we say, and what is said about us, will present a picture of different aspects of our lives, our activities, and personality.  Even if someone tells the odd lie about us, is nasty, cruel, or totally inaccurate, I reckon, over time, on balance, the digital data about us will add up to something close to a fairly accurate picture of who we really are.  
That's scary.  It's also liberating.
If we are fake, or out to rip people off, or we want to pretend we're something we are not, then this digital connectedness and everlasting data might be said to be a bad thing, since what we truly are will eventually "come out".
Here's the good news:  If we want to do good stuff, be useful, helpful, kind, caring, fight injustice, have great ideas, make a positive difference etc.  that stuff will "come out" too.
So potentially, everything could be "out there" in the digital realm, possibly forever.  How we live our lives, the authentic self, as much as it is revealed in the physical world, could be captured and be available to everyone.

Oh and don't forget the embarrassing stuff we did after a few too many.  You never know what old pics our mates will digitise to give everyone a good laugh years after the event! 

How do we feel about that?

Looking at Clogger Jack and the kids in school in 1910, we know we too will soon (relatively!) be gone.  But perhaps we will not be as easily forgotten.
Every day I hear, or think about the phrase "life is short".  We know that. 

The question is, what are we going to do with the time we have, knowing that sooner or later, people will be able to connect the dots, put two and two together, and see what kind of person we really are?

If you found this post helpful, please pass it on.  There's more inspiring stuff here:  "On losing a friend.  What will we leave behind?".

Thanks very much for reading this post. I really appreciate it and hope you enjoyed it.  I want to know what you think.  Do you believe what we really are eventually comes out through our digital life?  What have you learned from discovering stuff about your ancestors?  See you in the comments.  Much love, Ian.

Your comments:

bush says:
24/01/2012 17:06:30

Heather says:
08/09/2010 21:31:44

All these questions, but Clogger Jack is still here, online and apart of your story and now my evening and everyone else who's stopped in to say 'hello'. All the stories lost - the characters that kept the town laughing are but a few anecdotes passed through stories shared at the pub. The greatest difference is that we play a greater hand in telling our own story; we get to chose what people know about us and are likely to share but we' can never control what people remember or how they feel about us and so, I agree that it's important to be kind, and loyal and to always try to do our best. Great post, I thoroughly enjoyed reading that and chatting with you on Twitter, this evening. Thank you Ian.
Wendym says:
29/10/2009 12:11:34

Great thoughts! Thank you for sharing! We all have a story and a history. I have very few photos of my childhood, my family was very poor and after my grandparents moved us America we just enjoyed our days together not giving too much thought to preserving the past. I have been working since I was young and most of my photos are of my friends and my animals over the years. I have been writing my memories down to share later should I have children and a few drawings to add to my journal. Many things were lost or lef t behind when we came to the states for my education and a better life for the three of us. I read your blog and it made me think about many things...I have since then pulled out my photo box and the memories really came flooding back. I even found a polariod shot..bit faded...of my 1st apartment at the age of 15...I was so proud of it. My grandparents had died and they worked so hard that it felt good to be able to find this photo and a couple of themselves just before they passed. I still have their wedding rings a couple of the letters my grandda had written my nana while working to bring us to the states...so much love there. Thank you for your post today...It really made me think on my past...both good and bad. I reflect on my life as it is today and the journey I have had to get where I am today. Thank you for invoking the thoughts and passions. Take care Wendym
Marjanne Pearson says:
26/10/2009 18:03:33

My mother and her siblings grew up close to their grandparents (all of them Mormons who journeyed from various countries to Utah in the mid 1800's). My mother loved to tell stories, and she also retained all of the family photos. So I've been able to sit down with my cousins and look through the photos, taking turns sharing the stories that we had heard about the various people. After I finish scanning the photos, I will send them to the Museum of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, so many more people have the opportunity to hear the stories, too.
Frank says:
26/10/2009 16:33:38

Dear Ian My new girl friend and I love to file through old foto albums from our youth. We'd like to know possibly everything about each other's lives. I am sure, some details of what I seem to remember, I do only remember because there is a foto and someone had told me something about it. I have just started on Facebook and already have found some friends. Yes, we can leave some important prints on the web. But, what is really important for us, don't we carry that in our hearts and share it only with the ones we love? Frank


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  • Ian AspinLocation: Lancaster Lake District, UK
  • Bio: I’m passionate about my work:TV journalist, producer, presenter, business ideas person. I care about: family, friends, helping people, finding meaning, running