Peak, Permanence, and the Precision Bass: On What Lasts

The myth out there is that college teachers have the summer off. I wish. I don’t have to be in my office, but summer is a time to regroup, kill off lingering committee work, get new classes set up, and try to get ready for the next semester. As part of that, my computer was replaced. I now have a nice iMac in place of my MacPro, which exceeds what I need these days.

Of course, the complicated part of the upgrade was getting all the stuff that I use on the new machine: apps, fonts, bookmarks, etc.  Lots of reinstalling and updating. Sadly, as I was doing this, I found out that my favorite 2 track audio editing app—BIAS’s Peak—is no more. As Peter Kirn at CreateDigitalMusic.com put it:

Peak is dead; long live Peak.

Small music tool makers don’t always last forever, the victim of any number of circumstances that can cause them to fold. There do seem to be a lot of casualties of favorite Mac waveform editors over the years, however. To that group, you can add perhaps the most famous and long-lasting Mac audio editor of them all: BIAS’ Peak.

I’ve been using Peak since 2000.  I edited music that I used in class, things for the Living Worship app and DVD, things that I played during talks. I used it to change levels on mix cds back before iTunes would burn with volume alterations.  I used it to master cds for the bands that I was in.  Loved it. Apparently, it was not so much a tech or market issue as a personal/personnel issue. Even in the digital world, it often comes back to the human factors.  That can be hard to remember when we don’t see the people who make the things we use or the people we buy them from. I think that has a lot to do with many of the brutal, ridiculous 1-star ratings that people leave for 99 cent apps because they don’t deliver functionality of much more expensive products.  It is easy to be harsh to a website.

The Peak situation, though, left me thinking about permanence.  I have a fretless Fender Precision Bass from 1972. It isn’t stock, so it’s not a collector’s dream or anything, but I love it. It was changed by previous owners, and I’ve tweaked it myself.  When I’m gone, they will probably fall into someone else’s hands.  Physical objects have a life that don’t depend upon my continued presence in the world.

Bits, on the other hand, probably won’t fare so well over the long haul. Notions like the “the right to be forgotten” notwithstanding, the tech world we’ve built so far doesn’t work that way.  I love my Mark of the Unicorn recording system, but I have to keep a Mac G4 running System 9 so that I can still use it. The web is no better. As Reece put it recently (in a great post):

Nothing lasts on the internet. I could write on my weblog for years and the next day get hit by a bus. The domain expires, the posts are lost, and it doesn’t matter if I had 10 readers or 10,000; it’s as if it never happened.

In response, Dave Winer suggested:

We should make it so there is part of the Internet that does not expire. A place where you can put stuff, write them a check, and be reasonably confident that it will stay there as long as there is human civilization on this planet.

That’s the dream.  It is on the minds of a lot of librarians, not just the folks at the Library of Congress who are thinking about at archiving everything from Twitter. Perhaps it should be on the minds of folks who are partaking new online memorial practices that have been sprouting up. It is a tough technological problem, made more complex by the need for little things like long term funding and company stability.  Sounds like something that might benefit from a technological solution.

Yet, some of the solutions make me wonder more deeply, is the internet a place of memorial: a place where memory is kept?  Can it ever be?  In a great piece on these issues in the New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker asks us to:

Consider Gordon Bell, a famous computer engineer whose innovations date back to the 1960s. More recently he undertook a project under the auspices of Microsoft Research called MyLifeBits, which included not only the totality of his e-mail correspondence but also digital records of Web pages visited, scanned versions of paper notes, recordings of routine conversations and tens of thousands of snapshots taken every 30 seconds by a digital camera that dangles from his neck. Bell suggests that this in fact is ultimately what digital technology is for: “to capture one’s entire life.” As he once told ComputerWorld magazine, the point is not to share it all in real time but to give the individual a tool to “leave a personal legacy — a record of your life.”

But this seems to me to mistake memory—which is bound to story—for a string of facts.

I’ve been to two funerals over the past few weeks’ for fathers of friends.  People told stories, people recounted memories, and people laughed.  Many of the accounts were embellished.  Perhaps the lives even made more sense in the retelling than they did when lived. We have a phenomenal ability  to bring order to otherwise irrational collections of events. But not a lot of what I heard was facts.

In the end, it seems to me that much of our lasting import has to do with our relationships.  Unless you are famous or culturally significant, it is unlikely that anyone will ever go through all of that digital stuff!  Indeed, we’re generating more data these days than we will ever have a chance to go back through. For the famous, there will be some doctoral dissertations that use these materials, I’m sure, but for the most part, my guess is that the data will wash away.

And that’s ok. You can tell a bit about me when you look at my bass.  The EMG pickups speak of a certain desire for cleanliness and compression. The rewiring of the two pickups from two volume knobs to one volume and on pan pot indicates a lack of sentimentality.  The homebrew cyanoacrylate (super glue) fix for worn varnish shows I have more time than money.  It doesn’t show that I want to replace those pickups and have the fretboard redone, redress wrongs of a younger me. So I am both revealed and obscured in the physical memory.

But to reveal who I am, all you have to do is ask the people I know. All of the physical objects, all the tools, are important.  They are parts of creating the good life. But that good life is necessarily intertwined with other people. There are others we love and who love us.  Others we know and who know us. Others we help and who help us.

I know that people have worried about “legacy” for thousands of years. There is something primordial and deeply human about wanting to leave a mark on the world for those who follow. A thousand years ago, the limits were technological: most people couldn’t leave behind things that would withstand decay. Today the problem differently technological: there is too much to ever wade through. It is a colossal ego that believes people will want to wade through it for you.

Instead of worrying about influencing what we leave behind, perhaps we should worry about influencing who we leave behind. That way, no matter whether we are remembered or not, our legacy will remain.

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