Life, Death, and Digital Traces

(originally published in 2010)

Jamie Livingston took one Polaroid snapshot everyday from March 31, 1979 until the day he died, October 25, 1997. This immense series of images is the richest modern-day autobiography I’ve ever “read.” Literature fans debate the fate of the “Great American Novel.” I think Jamie has written it within the silence of his Polaroids, but it’s not a novel, it’s a memoir.

At the very end of Carl Raswan’s 1935 travel journal, “My Life Amongst the Bedouins,” is an epilogue that describes a vibrant day of falconing on the desert. It’s a brilliant reward for your interest in all of the previous detailed pages on pre-petrochemical life in the Arabian Peninsula. It’s a clear window into one beautiful day, in a far away place, during an era before most of us were born.

At the very end of Jamie’s series is the unplanned, melancholic and honestly natural document of the final half-year of his life. It’s slippery, a hazard, it unbalances you. The clarity of the day-to-day details of his life: friends, food, stuff, are all passively present, aligned, and expected. Then the path shifts. He becomes ill. The world tilts, the vision narrows, and the previously consistent flow of images skip, jump, and come to a jarring rest. Though it’s been fifteen years since the last image was recorded, we witness his life, and death, in a strikingly present way.

Jamie didn’t post his images to a blog or to Facebook, there weren’t any blogs then, no Facebook.  Jamie saved these pictures in small dated boxes, offline, in a case. “Save them all for what?” I ask aloud at the webpage that contains the images from 1997. Ten years after Jamie’s death, his friends posted his images online as a memorial to his life. Could he ever have imagined that we’d be looking at them now?

An old acquaintance, who was really a friend of a friend, was in a motorcycle accident a while back and was paralyzed. I remember learning about the accident when it happened, feeling a gnawing pang about the awful news, and worried sympathetically about her well-being. I continued to hear about this acquaintance in bits and pieces here and there, but she wasn’t really a “friend,” and I didn’t think it was my place to ask about the details of her difficult life.

On Facebook I’m connected to my friend, the one through whom I met the young woman who had the accident. I was checking my Facebook news feed when I noticed my friend wrote a note on the Facebook wall of the woman who had the accident. My friend then posted to her stream that she loved and missed her friend, then uploaded a gallery of pictures of the two of them together. “Oh no,” I thought. I clicked the link and found a stream of status-updates of love and remembrance.

Sometime within the past few days the woman who had the accident passed away, her death caused by her lingering injuries. The messages from her friends and family turned her wall into a memorial of her life. Old pictures, new pictures, found pictures; there she was, as she used to be before the accident, and after the accident. New posts are added every day.

As I scrolled down the pages, I reached the gap where her postings had stopped and the memorial began. In here, in this plain uncomplicated space, she had died. I lingered over the few, simple, unemotional lines of texts. A friend wrote, “Looking forward to seeing you…” Then a day passed, then another day. On the third day a new message was posted on her wall, “Love you.” Then a dozen more, then another dozen. Then notes of loss, written in the present as if she’s still checking her Facebook page, “I don’t think you even know how much everyone loves and misses you…” “Your like family to me, your so beautiful inside and out.” Then more pictures, videos, messages, and remembrances.

I scrolled back to the top and re-read my friend’s message, “My heart aches. I love you so,” and I had to stand up. I walked away from my computer.

I looked out of the window and gazed over the trees, the dirt, the weeds. I looked down at my hands and wiggled my fingers. I looked up at the sky, at clouds and a pale half moon obscured by daylight. I turned off the lights inside my office to see the moon more clearly and remembered a physics lesson a high-school teacher was once wondrously intent about.

He’d pace across the front of the class, rub his hands together and say, “Energy may not be created nor destroyed; it’s ever present and can only change states, it can only transition.”

Our digital traces spill over with the fervent life of people being people, minutely, brazenly, both boringly and with verve. Our energy is the magnet, life upon life, layers of life, sucking us together into the loudest celebrating sirens. In unison we take our paths and seek the joy of things we hold dear: people, findings, and connections. However loose these things may be, we seem to have much more of them in common than we have any differences.

Our digital traces are sparks that flare across the lives of friends and strangers alike. The machine churns, it makes this magic. If you listen to it carefully it tells you its secret. I found these two life-capsules posted by strangers upon the digital sea. They’ve washed up on my digital island. They say, “look at me, you’re looking at yourself, all these things are temporary.”

And I say back, “Time’s got nothing on the energy you’ve shared. It lives; it’s eternal. I can see it. I can see you.”

It’s your energy, my energy, the energy, energy, energy.



Jamie Livingston’s Polaroids:

Jamie Livingston on Wikipeidia

The Black Tents of Arabia: My Life Amongst the Bedouins

NOTE: I am not posting links to the Facebook pages I mention above. They are private. At a time that the family might make a public statement I’ll provide a link.


After working at a handful of start-ups (and before that, 6 years of art school) Jason Moriber helped launch Wise Elephant, a business/marketing strategy and tactics firm. As of October 2010 Jason is now the Director of Digital Strategies for Waggener Edstrom Studio D. Jason has an MFA in drawing, has played in 4 bands, created and implemented programs for auditors, start-ups, and organic farmers, and am in constant awe of the amazing people he learns about, meets, and fortunately gets to work with. You can read more of Jason’s writing at  NewCommBiz. Engage with Jason on Twitter: @jasonmoriber