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  • The March on Washington and the pre-digital age

    I wear my button every year on the anniversary of the March on Washington
    I wear my button every year on the anniversary of the March on Washington

    It’s the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I was there, an eyewitness to history. But even though I was 19, going into my junior year in college, I don’t remember much about the day. I drove from New York, heard the speakers, listened to the music, and of course there was the Big Speech. And I kept the button. It was sunny, hot even. The crowd was joyous. I was excited: this was a big deal. The DC cops were surly. They didn’t want it to be a big deal. The downtown merchants didn’t welcome us, small spenders, lunch-counter troublemakers. I should remember more, but my memory was never very good, and it wasn’t the computer age, not yet.

    Fifty years from now an eyewitness to today's history could reconstruct what happened at the National Mall out of digital footprints: saved web searches, credit card charges, keystroke logs, EZ-Pass records, metrocard tickets, digital photos, CCTV footage, cell tower pings, NSA satellite data. There, that’s me, in that YouTube video, over by N38 53.36339 W77 3.0114.

    Aerial view of the March on Washington

    Above: Photo of the March on Washington (Library of Congress); below: GPS coordinates of the Lincoln Memorial: N38 53.36339 W77 3.0114

     GPS coordinates of the Lincoln Memorial

    Fifty years from now an eyewitness to history with a dim memory could find answers to all the big and little questions: Did I buy gum? Park in the ’burbs and train in? Have a burger that looked like dog food at a Woolworth’s counter? Text my roommate from Baltimore to arrange our rendez-vous? Did I really jaywalk near K Street or was that ticket just harassment?

    I could do that because, in the age of computers, even the most trivial aspects of life live forever in cyberspace. I could find which of my friends attended the event, reread what they posted about it, or where Yelp checked them in. And maybe, with a FOIA request, I could find out who was watching me. I could read reviews of the march on TripAdvisor, and my own posts about the event would be preserved in the cloud. If my conscience was bothering me, I could even pay that jaywalking fine online. And with every click I’d receive context-sensitive ads offering products and services related to the event. Maybe there would be buttons. Certainly there would be t-shirts, laser-printed t-shirts. Archive photos show some marchers wearing hand-lettered t-shirts, but mostly people dressed up for the march.

    Digitizing the past helps us recover it, as the Library of Congress photos of the March on Washington so clearly demonstrate, and digitizing life as we live it gives us a different kind of memory--as fallible as the old kind, but more easily searched. In the digital age I can elect to stay home, knowing someone will surely live-tweet the event. Still, there's something to be said for actually being there.

     Booklet sales table at the March on Washington

    Above: A booklet sales table (Library of Congress). I don’t think they were selling t-shirts on the Mall 50 years ago. Below: A digital record of the buttons I keep in a box in a dresser drawer. The CORE button is gone, but I still have my NSM, SNCC, and SANE buttons, plus a couple of others. I wore the Adlai Stevenson shoe button, from the 1952 presidential campaign, in third grade at PS 144, because everyone else in my class liked Ike.

    My button collection 


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