SXSW 2012 Q&A: Jesse Chan-Norris

Rachel Lovinger   February 14, 2012

South by Southwest 2012 - The Scatter/Gather Interviews
The Breakdown: In this week’s SXSW Q&A, we talk with Jesse Chan-Norris (@jcn). He’ll be conducting a core conversation – a format intended to be highly interactive – called “Shoebox Full of Photos: Beyond Digital Storage.” He wants to talk with you about preserving personal history, now that we’ve gone digital.

S/G: What can people expect from your core conversation, “Shoebox Full of Photos: Beyond Digital Storage”?

Jesse: First and foremost, I’m looking forward to an actual conversation. I love SXSW for all of the wonderful minds that show up, but so much of the conference is centered around one-way knowledge transfer. The most successful sessions I’ve been to have gotten back to the essence of the conference, which is seeing what happens when you take all of these brainy people and put them all in the same city for four days and see what comes out.

My session will be a conversation around the implications of the entirely digital lifecycle of content today, from creation through production and consumption, and what it means that we never actually generate any physical objects to leave behind. Traditionally, photographs are persistent and they are tangible. A photograph that was made a hundred years ago exists in much the same state today as it did back then. And assuming no disruption, it will continue to look the same for another hundred years. Digital photographs invert both of those properties. By their very nature, digital photographs are temporal, and encoded. They only exist as they are being decoded – without the  decoding machine, a digital photograph does not actually exist. Left on its own, a photograph taken with my phone today will not be viewable in a hundred years.

I’m a technologist, and a photographer, and a storyteller. I’ve been producing content for the web since 1995, and have been producing other digital content for even longer. I’ve been taking digital photos for over a decade, but it’s only really been in the past five years or so that the photographs that I’ve been making exist solely in their digital form. Before that, even digital photos would most likely have been printed to be shared, but the advent of high speed everything and social everything else has made that unnecessary. This, in itself, has been wonderful for the near instantaneous dissemination of information (if a bit overwhelming in terms of volume), but it also means that we are no longer leaving behind this physical trail. I would like to talk about what this means.

S/G: As the records of our personal histories are increasingly digital, our recorded memories seem to become less precious. Why is that, and is it a problem or is it just cultural evolution?

Jesse: I think that there are three factors at play here:

  1. Effort to capture. It is so cheap to create digital content that very little effort goes into determining what moments are worthy of being captured in the first place. Pre-digital, when the cost of capturing a moment meant losing the ability to capture another moment later, each photograph required more forethought which subsequently made the moment itself more meaningful.
  2. Effort to store. Similarly, digital content takes up very little room and costs virtually nothing to store, so the images we do capture simply get dumped into our digital storage devices with all of the other bits in our lives. Storing these memories takes no effort and we can therefore do so passively, with little consideration for the importance of those moments.
  3. Effort to discard. Finally, and possibly most significantly, the effort to actually discard and curate is compounded as more and more photos are captured and stored. Very quickly, the effort required to revisit those histories becomes a burden, and it becomes easier to just ignore them or start over again.

I do think that this is a problem, but not necessarily one that needs to be solved by going back to the way things “used to be.” The problem is that the technology is not serving our memories properly at this point. The reality is that digital memories are cheap, easy and abundant – we need to figure out how to best utilize these properties to better our lives.

S/G: What is it about the shoebox that makes it such a perfect container for photos?

Jesse: For me, it has to do with its size. I have a single shoebox that contains most of the 4×6 photos that I shot in one year of my life. The prints fit perfectly widthwise and there are about a thousand photos in this one box. It’s large enough that I can have a significant body of work – that the photos can inform each other and provide context for each other in a way that a single album may not be be able to, but not so many that it becomes overwhelming. It’s easily pulled out of a closet and put on a coffee table to be explored. Memories remain relevant as they remain accessible, and the shoebox form provides that.

S/G: What recommendations do you have for people who do want to preserve their personal history, digital or otherwise?

Jesse: By saving everything, you run the risk of saving nothing. One of the biggest challenges to preserving your history is to know what to save and what not to save. Save everything and you will ultimately have too much stuff, digital and physical, and you will no longer be able or willing to sift through it all.

So be conscious of what you want to keep. Ironically, I believe that one of the best ways to preserve those in-between items that you don’t really care about, but would like to remember, is to actually store a digital representation of them – simply taking the photo or scanning an item is often enough to allow yourself a moment of memory before discarding that thing you should be letting go of in the first place.

As for digital storage, practically speaking, a mixed strategy of local primary storage, local backups, and backups in the “cloud” is probably the best bet right now. Storing things on remote services is a mixed bag. It is great and can save you in many disasters but you must remember that it is, by its nature, out of your hands, which means that you do not control it and must be conscious of the fact that it could go away at any moment.

S/G: What are you looking forward to seeing at SXSW?

Jesse: I have a few rules for SXSW that have served me well ever since I first attended in 2000.

First, I always try to attend sessions on topics I know nothing about. And I don’t just mean a deeper dive into a topic I have a cursory understanding of, I mean topics about which I know literally nothing. I find that these give me the most bang for my buck and leave me with more questions than answers, which is a great jumping point for when I return to my real life. For example, last year I learned far more about shipping containers than I knew was possible.

Secondly, I am going to try to spend as much time meeting interesting people outside of the sessions as possible. I’ve forged relationships at SXSW that have lasted years and years and it’s one of the reasons I enjoy attending so much.

And finally, I’m very excited to be staying for the music portion of the conference again this year! My company Indaba Music is going to have a presence in Austin again during SXSW Music and I love to watch the turnover as the laptops and iPads get replaced with guitars and fixies. I recommend that any interactive attendee who enjoys live music stay at least a day or two into music – it’s truly a wonderful experience.

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2012 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by Brian Warren
Badge – by adactio
Microphone – by hiddedevries
Xtranormal – by nan palmero
Texas waffle – by rachel lovinger


One Response

  1. Slides and audio from Jesse’s talk are available online at:

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