100-year plan workshop – Edinburgh

By Robert Pembleton, George Oates, and Melissa Terras

This workshop was co-developed, iterated and convened by the Data + Design Lab, with organisational help from the Centre for Data, Culture and Society, both based at Edinburgh Futures Institute.

Imagine a vibrant, student cafe at the University of Edinburgh, on a cold but sunny January day. Imagine a group of academics, students, community leaders, and changemakers gathered in the corner near surreal interpretations of bookshelves, speaking over the excited conversations of a Friday morning.  This was the setting for a How to write a 100-year plan workshop hosted by the University’s Edinburgh Futures Institute – a challenge-led multidisciplinary initiative which tackles complex issues to imagine and shape better futures.

We convened to imagine the preservation of our digital heritage for future generations. A sense of excitement filled the room. There was an energy. Everyone was eager to contribute and collaborate, to give what they had to this purpose. 50 billion images; worthy of protection. The horizon was 100 years.

This workshop gravitated to the challenge of continuing access, about what to keep. How do we ensure that the viewers and researchers of future generations can see things both in their raw form, and with contextual colour around single photos? Flickr is interestingly different here because most of the images are described directly by their creators, and have factual EXIF data attached. 

We began by trying to step out of time and allow ourselves to think on the scale of centuries. Each of us dug out a picture of a meaningful place: breath-taking landscapes such as Ben Nevis and Zumaya Beach, a now empty hut sometimes buzzing with community vibrancy, and Bobby’s blurry family photo qualified with generational memories:

“It may not be the best picture, but it’s my picture.”

This sentence popped out as we were doing the first exercise, where we ask people to find pictures of places that mean something to them. It’s always interesting to see which places people choose. They’re often of views, or capture a place where good memories have been made with loved ones. They are rarely what you might call spectacular or historic or exceptionally well-made, but they are poignant for their viewer. John Berger has called photographs “observable moments.” Meaningful to maybe just a few people, but no less valuable than a well-constructed photograph of a classical landscape. Vernacular. Flickr is full of pictures like that. Brimming

We discussed meaning, longevity, humility, and value. What do we value, and how? We tend to show a primacy for personal value. There was once a glimmer that the internet could be a space outside of capitalism , but it has of course become integrated into the machine. Now is a good time to be cautious, as we imagine new systems. 

The profundity of the changes at hand causes pause. Perhaps we should leave things in a state where they can be found and used in ways we couldn’t possibly imagine. If we curate this with the lens of the present, there is a threat of sanitisation. Obtuse decision making shrouds bias, and we’re in the midst of a swell of disinformation that’s colliding with wanting to present an unbiased picture. 

There are practical considerations for such a large archive. Do we really need 50 billion images plus the infinite amount yet to come? Maybe its value should be measured against the archive’s carbon footprint. Maybe it’s OK for some things to disappear forever. We discussed the simplistic beauty in randomness, and so perhaps an approach could be to keep a random percentage of everything. This would mean we’d keep some of the boring stuff, and history lovers of the future may be most enamoured with the mundane. Libraries, archives and other memory institutions have detailed deaccession policies – where they decide what to no longer look after – but Flickr can be thought of as a vernacular, outside, “fugitive” archive. Any decision regarding deletion of content should be collective, cooperative, collaborative, and transparent. To expose our methods, to help future generations understand how we made our decisions. Then, maybe we can release the weight of our history with joy, with ceremony, with something that could become like a tradition that we encourage, support, revisit, and maintain ourselves collectively. 

Thinking about long organisations

We talked about how ritual might help sustain a strong direction across a century. (There were jokes about everyone wearing robes.) Ritual has had a place to play in human society thus far – it seems to have longevity. Imagine a successful 1000 year old pub that never franchised and never exceeded its comfort level; it was just right. 

Towards the end of our session we went for a walk and explored the ancient Royal Mile of Edinburgh, passing by the World’s End pub. That was once the perception: there was nothing of value, the end of the world, outside of the castle’s gates. We walked in contemplation with ancient volcanoes which dot the landscape surrounding this beautiful city. A 3.8 billion year old rock? Maybe 100 years isn’t so long after all. There are more species than ourselves, and there is more to come. 

We walked past another neighbourhood whose significant industrial heritage is now demolished. The machines of the future may be quite upset indeed that they aren’t able to visit their ancestors. 

Few digital photos will survive for a century by accident. A 100 year plan should be a practical, responsive, future facing declaration of intent. We train our lens, knowing that our visions are from fascinating unknowns, impossible perspectives. We do love to play. We should nurture that in ourselves. Play inspires joy. Joy celebrates humanity. The Flickr archive is a record of what it has been like to be in certain spaces, from a certain perspective, at a certain time. It cherishes our sense of identity

“The nature of our identity must not be destroyed.”

The session ended in quiet, contemplative reflection. It elicited poetry, a snapshot of the moment. We could share it, but it wouldn’t really make sense out of context. Nothing really does.

We thank all attendees for their contributions. As with any good, invigorating engagement, our discussions provoked more questions than it answered. Here are some things that we may explore in the future. 

  • Oral histories happen everywhere. Could we or should we figure out how to attach sound to pictures in flickr.org?
  • When does a story become a history?
  • Is decentralisation a route to protecting neutrality? If more copies live in more and differently accessed and described spaces, could that diffuse the “truth” of history?

Postscript:Post-it transcriptions

The first section of the workshop is about thinking in centuries. Not something we do often, so we’ve found it helpful to expand our normal timeframes a bit at the start. We have an exercise in three parts, and participants note down their thoughts on post-its and we can all have a look afterwards.

  1. What in your life has lasted for 100 years? Fisherrow Harbour; books, photographs/postcards, documents (incl. design), monuments, environment, buildings/roads/rail; my house ~1910, grandfather’s crown from WWI, great-grandmother’s ring (now mine!); Victorian egg & bird collection, great AUK(?) items, egg at NMS, old paintings; a cannon from a tall ship; the ring I’m wearing; my flat; my house; the ring on my right hand; music (I sing classical music); I have a doll that was my mother’s mother’s from her childhood; my house; copies of vintage books I adore and own, e.g. Lafcadio Hearn’s.
  2. What in your life do you want to last for another 100 years? The same books, some of my pictures, some of my writings; code and info on AI planners, life/work results; my dichroic ring and the story behind it; HOPE; photos of my family; music!; family photographs; international communication; my children; my children, or at least, their children; my house; environment, community/society; how we lived, understanding of how we lived; the house.
  3. What in your life do you not want to last 100 years? The album with my weedy singing made by the band I was in in my 20s; META CRISIS; AI-generated crud; “reinforced divisions,” “Left v Right”; climate change; Tories; all this plastic; videos of my early teaching/lectures (Lecture Capture!); the rest of my pictures and writings; revenge porn!