Memory lane redesigned by Haussmann (or, the mechanization of Samuel Pepys)

Medieval_rooftops_i I have done the ethnography of memory lane.  I have sat with people in their living rooms, and asked for a tour of the family photo album. 

Two kinds of photo jump out.

There’s the  "phantom photo." The respondent may recognize one of the people in the photo ("I think that’s my uncle or something"), but the place, the season, the occasion, are now lost.  The meaning of the photo, once so obvious, has evaporated.  Interestingly, people rarely destroy these photos.

There’s the "cargo photo." These may not be much to look at.  Often, they are smudgy and badly framed.  You will be trying to make out what’s in the frame, when you realize the respondent hasn’t said anything for a little while.  Then you realize they are trying very hard not to cry.  Cargo photos carry bags of information and meaning.  Badly lit, badly framed, this photograph of a man sitting at a table at Wendy’s somehow captures the truth of who he was.  ("I don’t know what it is.  That’s the expression he always had when he was planning something.")

Phantom photos capture less meaning than they appear to.  Cargo photos capture more.

Of course, these are the problems of the old technology.  The camera, for all its genius, left a great deal out.  Indeed, all photos would be phantom photos were it not for the restoration of meaning that happens everytime the family sits down to tell the story of the family. ("That’s your Uncle Bob.  At Kalamalka.  The trip they shot the bear, I think.  Get a load of that shirt.  He looks about 20!")

But the new technologies will change memory lane in the greatest urban reconstruction since Haussmann rebuilt Paris.  Memory lane is about to get larger, more capacious, easier to navigate, and much more interesting to visit.  Or to put this is the language of marketing, these technologies will create value like nobody’s business, they will turn memory into gold. 

Four new technologies will make the difference. 

One. Cameras liked the Nikon D100 are capable of capturing sound.  I was interested to read that Patrick McMullan uses this capacity to capture the names of the people he shoots at social affairs (see Henderson below), but we could use this capacity to identify the shooter and the 5 Ws: where, when, what, who, and why.  Every photo will come with its own "voice over."  This will capture data from the person best qualified to give data.  Thus will relatives speak to one another across generations.  (Several generations down the road, the way things are said will be as illuminating as the things that are said.  "I really like great, great auntie Elizabeth’s photos.  She was so sly!")

Two. Try us we might, the photo taker can never supply enough information. And this is where the geotagging comes in (see Austen below).  Cameras will shortly be able to stamp by longtitude and latitude as they now date by time, date, month and year.  Superimpose this on a Google map and we will be able to trace the steps of Auntie Elizabeth that Sunday in 2009 when she and the family wandered through up 5th Avenue and into Central Park.  Time plus space stamping will allow us to reconstruct quite a lot of this trip: how long Auntie Elizabeth spent that afternoon in Saks, for instance.  ("That hat in the attic, is that hers!?  Maybe it’s from Saks!  Go, look at the label!  Maybe this is when she bought it!")  Data like these create a web that make other data germane and new inference possible (see Kluver below).  Imagine having the historical record and the historical artifact. 

Three. Many photos get lost in the storing or the storage.  But wireless cameras (or the camera on a wireless phone) can wick photos to safety…or at least to relatives.  Now that a photo sits on several hard drives, its chances of survival have gone way up.  And eventually someone in the private sector will create time lockers for families, records that can survive the indifference of several generations.  (And what would we pay to release the photos taken by Uncle Bob three generations after the fact?  It’s a long wait for the service provider, but the longer the wait, the more profitable it becomes)

Let’s call "time lockers" a category on its own.  With Google now capable of archiving email for millions of people, it shouldn’t be very difficult to capture the photos of several hundred thousand (or at least enough to make the venture profitable.)

It is, of course, possible to capture too much information.  And this can destroy the value of a record just as surely as too little information.  Gordon Bell at Microsoft has embarked upon an effort to record everything that happens to him (see Thompson below).  When I was the head of the Institute of Contemporary Culture, we thought very hard about the possibilities of Pepysian capture.  So Bell is my hero.  But let’s be clear, for civilians like you and me, we merely want more data, not all data.  (What we want is a "Goldilocks" ratio, not too little, not too much.)

And what, precisely, is this value worth?  (And now we come to a place that anthropology and economics intersect.)  Well, you can see why an anthropologist would like a memory lane transformed by Haussmann.  The native is now doing my job for me.  The mountains and valleys of ethnographic data (note the Gibsonian metaphor), these will be a great gift.  It will mark the return of "arm chair" anthropology that has so fall out of favor in the 20th century. 

Other values are pretty clear.  Every family, even the ones that are unhappy in their own way, will be glad to have a better record.  Think of the amount of time and money that people spend on  The search for roots is one of the things that make the internet the internet. Now, to be sure, some of this is driven by the silliest of human motives: the discovery, for instance, that we descend from a royal family or at least someone famous.  But I think the ancestral search gets more sophisticated, the more data is available to it.  And as the historical picture becomes more nuanced, the value of all existing data goes up, and new data takes on value enough to warrant entrepreneurial funding.  The historically rich get richer.  The historical get rich. 

But there is a deeper, more pressing value add here that is not much talked about.  As change increases and dynamism quickens, individuals will need to have archival data for personal and practical reasons.  There was a point in my life when it was possible to say that I had changed jobs, cities, addresses, relationships or perspectives once every six months.  (I know this seems preposterous but I think if you sit down and do a "identity chronology" of your own you will see this number or something like it.)  This is an awful lot of water under the bridge. The task of reconstruction is now, well, daunting.  What would I give for 10 perfectly documented photos for each of those 6 month periods? 

All of us will have fragmented selves that will need reconstruction from time to time.  But I think reconstructed lives will be especially useful to CEOs, parents, football coaches, criminals, divorce courts and of course marketers.  "What was I thinking?" this is the question that hovers over many proceedings.  From these data, even this can be extracted.  (In a perfect world, there would be little "what was I thinking " booths everywhere, to which we might repair to report when on the verge of a moment momentous.)

Memory lane, before Haussmann, was pleasant, meandering, occasional, and, most of all, optional.  Memory lane after Haussmann, this is more useful and obligatory.  This memory lane is no longer a by-way.  It’s now a Broadway, a street you have to visit or at least cross if you want to spend any time in this town.


Austen, Ian.  Pictures, With Map and Pushpin Included.  New York Times.  November 2, 2006. here.

Henderson, Stephen.  2006.  Party Masters: Patrick McMullan, Sharp Shooter.  Town and Country.  November. p. 296.

Kluver, Billy.  1997.  A Day with Picasso: Twenty-four Photographs by Jean Cocteau.  Cambridge: MIT Press. 

McCracken, Grant.  2003.  Tag, we’re it.  This blog sits at the intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  January 5, 2003. here.

McCracken, Grant.  2004.  How to blog like an anthropologist.  This blog sits at the intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  August 17, 2004. here.

McCracken, Grant. 2006.  What I did on my summer vacation (or, "may I have your passport, please?") This blog sits at the intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  August 22, 2006. here

Thompson, Clive. 2006.  What if you never forgot anything: How Microsoft’s Gordon Bell is Reengineering Human Memory.  Fast Company.  November.  pp. 72-79, 110-112.

For more on Baron Haussmann, the Wiki entry is here.

For more on Samuel Pepys, the Wiki entry is here.

7 thoughts on “Memory lane redesigned by Haussmann (or, the mechanization of Samuel Pepys)

  1. Sam Felder

    flickr and other services like this already offer what you are talking about. I use flickr to catalog almost all of my photos. I geotag and share them publicly and privately with my friends and family. So long as Yahoo’s data center is around this material is available. Moreover, I allow anyone who can look at one of my photos to order a print. This further increases the life of that image.

  2. steve

    When I think of the vast pile of my late father’s Kodak slides…sitting in various storage boxes and carousels, probably never to be looked at. It’s kind of sad.

  3. jens

    Max Frisch: “Technology is a way of organizing the universe so that man doesn’t have to experience it.”

  4. DC1974

    At my grandmother’s funeral recently, we had all the photo albums that my grandfather (who passed several years before) on hand. My grandfather was obsessively organized. Each photo album was broken down into 10 year spans, and each photo was labeled with “who” and “when” and “where.” It was a fantastic process for all of us to look through those albums. My grandfather wasn’t particularly sentimental, though, so there was no cataloguing of “why.” The photo captions had all the emotion of a booking photo. I found this fascinating in someways. I also found it fascinating about what my grandfather had thought to keep. He had spent his entire working life in sales for Pontiac Motors, so in addition to the photos of family there were also photos of the things like the parts room in a Pontiac dealership in Duluth, MN. If I ever go back and get my MA, I think I’d most like to study some form of visual anthropology. I think that not only the way that we frame our subjects, but also the subjects we choose to frame says enormous amounts about our individual and social cultures. Our photographic history is as important as an oral or written history for understanding our ways of seeing.

  5. nelson

    Hi Grant: Great post. I came across this webiste. They apply face-recognition technology to family photos. You create an account and upload some photos with the proper identification. After these initial photos, the software automatically detects faces in the following uploaded photos, saving the effort needed to mark faces manually. They claim it can be taught to associate faces with names and family trees. I haven’t tested it myself but I think it’ll be a great help to answer “Who?”. Check it out.

  6. Andrew Barer

    I found this fascinating.
    I am starting a company based on the power of adding sound to images for the purpose of helping people tell stories and preserve memories. I’d be happy to share my business plan. Our demo site is

    I’d be happy to give anyone who contacts me ( a coupon for a free talking photo card and shipping — all I ask is some feedback.



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