»  The Straggler, No. 59

October 8th, 2007

  The Virtual Attic


My attic, like yours, is a place of dust and dark corners, exposed brickwork and beams, and piled boxes and bundles of forgotten or little-used items: luggage, old magazines, out-of-favor toys, medical mementoes from long-ago mishaps (did I really go round on crutches for three months?) and what department stores call "seasonals" — Christmas decorations and the like. Much of it will be stock for our next garage sale, but in among there are a few boxes that are neither "seasonal" nor garage-saleable, and which nag feebly at the conscience when spotted. Now I think I have come up with … but let me begin at the beginning.

It is my occasional pleasure — I am speaking of three or four hours a week — to fiddle with my computer. I don't mean mechanically. I don't know one end of a soldering iron from the other. This is software fiddling — getting the computer to do things for me. I made my living for some years as a computer programmer, back in the days of "big iron" — the million-dollar mainframe computers that took up entire floors of corporate premises before desktops, laptops, handhelds, and the internet arrived like that meteor that saw off the dinosaurs. I still like to do a little coding now and then, though for amusement only, and perhaps to reassure myself that the computer is still my servant, not my master.

Software fiddling nowadays means making things for the internet. Using mark-up languages, you create web pages for your computer to display. Using a "front-end" language, you instruct the displaying computer to manipulate the displayed information. Using a different, "server-side," language, you instruct the distant server, where all pages are permanently kept, to save, search, and retrieve information. It's fun.

Well, I have my own website, which I started back in the late 1990s, when the internet was still new, at any rate to the general public. Still trapped in that "big iron," IBM-or-nothing mentality, I bought my site-building tools from the biggest, bossiest firm around, which was of course Microsoft Corp. They had a product named FrontPage, which you could use to build a website. I bought the thing, read the first three chapters of the manual, muttered "Right, I've got it," and put up my website.

Alas! for the command economy and the huge world-bestriding commercial behemoths of yesteryear. Woe! to the poor citizen who has placed his trust in their permanence and infallibility. FrontPage, it turned out, was the Edsel of software packages. The web pages it generated were nightmares of redundancy and incompatibility. I stuck with it grimly, but in 2006 Microsoft stopped issuing new releases of the beast, and folded it into a new package that (a) cost three times as much, while (b) inheriting all FrontPage's worst features.

Wiser now, I resolved to rebuild my website from scratch, using the most elementary, basic tools I could find, preferably ones that did not bear the Microsoft logo. I taught myself the mark-up languages and set to it. It was in the course of planning out this larger rebuilding project that I lit upon one of the few original ideas I have ever had: the Virtual Attic. It came to me as follows.

In my attic I have some ancient cardboard boxes containing such items of family memorabilia as have survived my travels. My maternal grandmother's baptismal certificate (1875) is in there. So are her husband's discharge papers from the Royal Engineers (1915, discharged in consequence of "not being likely to become an efficient soldier"). So is my father's certificate of membership in the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes (1934). So are my own old school reports, which I have written about here (NR, 3/19/07). So are numerous letters from my parents to me in various parts of the world. So, of course, are dozens of old photographs, going back into the nineteenth century.

I have made occasional desultory efforts to put interesting portions of this stuff on my current website. Building my new site, it occurred to me that by adding a little at a time, I could get all these memorabilia on the internet in a year or so, thus creating a "virtual attic"; and that, given what we can surmise about the future development of cyberspace, the prospects of it all surviving out there are likely better than they are in my actual attic.

One of the irreducible consequences of mammalian reproduction is that my children will only be half as interested in my family's history as I am, and their children only a quarter, and so depressingly on. Our domestic affections are, I believe, at a normal level for families in the early twenty-first century U.S.A., but if I were to be hit by the proverbial truck tomorrow, I see no strong incentive for my children to carry these moldering old letters and certificates forward into their post-Dad lives. Temperamentally, I am even slightly opposed to their doing so. Elaborate genealogies and interest in lineage and inheritance are Old World preoccupations. We Americans (the special case of the Latter-Day Saints aside) are a forward-looking people, not much bothered by living in the same state of genealogical ignorance as Dr. Johnson, who boasted: "I can hardly tell who was my grandfather." Yet at the same time, I should be sorry to think of this material all being lost, if a little effort could preserve it for ever. Hence: the virtual attic!

I was so taken with my idea that I even spoke about it to some friends in software development, asking them if there might be a business model to be worked out there somewhere. If I want to do this for my family memorabilia, there must be a lot of people who would pay to have it done for them. My friends thought money might possibly be made, but that the process of scanning and transcribing would be too labor-intensive to find a mass market.

I have therefore dropped the idea of the virtual attic as a business plan. Should any keen entrepreneur with a scanner and a high tolerance for dust and clutter wish to take it up, I offer the idea gratis, with my blessing (though I note that the domain www.virtualattic.com is already taken by an outfit selling antique glassware). I scan, and code, and transcribe, for myself alone, and for my ancestors.