Our Ragged History
In 1992, for my father’s 30th anniversary in the United States, he designed and printed trading cards of our family’s history. They start in pre-war Eastern Europe and span the the Holocaust, life in Romania, growing up in the ’70s in Brooklyn, and his reign as king of advertising on Madison Avenue in the ’80s (my dad was literally, literally 80’s Don Draper). For the 20th(ish) anniversary of these trading cards, we worked together to adapt them for the web.
The Julius Cards are our origin story. Jews are like Wolverine. We have been experimented on. We have egregious gaps in our history. We all secretly have bone claws. The Julius Cards began as a novelty, stemming from my dad’s love of sports, toys and trivia, but by making them, my dad has become The Archivist of our family’s history. My brother and I are too maladjusted to want families of our own, so we wouldn’t point to this digital record and say, “This is who we are. This is what we came from.” But we could, if this weren’t the end of the family line.
My family is ethnically Ashkenazi, and lived in Timisoara, Romania during the Holocaust. Many artifacts of ours were either destroyed by Nazis or left behind when my immediate family came to the States. Dozens of relatives with vivid, full lives were lost as a result of the Holocaust as well. In my family, we can’t recover that information through oral tradition. This is in part because most survivors have since died, and also because some survivors, like my grandmother, refuse to talk about the war. This is apparently not uncommon. In Jason Scott’s apposite dConstruct talk, The Save Button Ruined Everything: Backing Up Our Digital Heritage he revealed that he has seven great-cousins that he doesn’t know the names of because they were lost in The Holocaust. His family was unable to talk about the loss.
I’ve been ruminating on some themes I’ve been exposed to over the past few years: digital preservation, the IndieWeb and futurefriend.ly movements, progressive enhancement, storytelling. They contributed to how I approached The Cards: looking both forward and backward. Longevity was the guiding design principle that informed all of my technical decisions, whereas many of my design decisions were allegorical. For example, Spinoza, the typeface, was chosen because it shares a name with Baruch Spinoza, a Jewish-born philosopher who did some work in optics, particularly on instrumentation and the design of lenses for telescopes (can see far into the past) and microscopes (very introspective). Very heavy-handed, no?
However, I don’t know if longevity as an ultimate goal is practical. Is it fair for me to say, “I built this thing to live forever,” because I designed for it to live forever? The web feels fractally brittle. We grandstand about how much we care about the things we make and throw around words like “craft” and “heritage” and “love” like we make a difference, but how many smart people wile away their days building what Andy and I refer to as “dog social networks”? A “dog social network” is an umbrella term to describe anything on the web that has about as much gravitas as an actual dog social network.
I don’t have enough perspective to speculate on the nature of the web, so I’m going to be myopic on purpose: What if it’s nature is to be impermanent, and that is its strength, and what allows it to evolve rapidly? I’ve worked hard to ensure that The Julius Cards will be around for a long time, but what if that’s unnatural? Anecdotally, one of my favorite things ever written is only available through the mirror at archive.org because the author’s family allowed her domain to expire when she died. When I die in a plane crash (because that is how I want to die), who will keep the servers running? Who will keep this thing alive for the length of time I intended for it to be alive for?