Surnames in the Digital Age

04.15.2013, 11:31 AM

So, many of you know that I am a bit of a nut when it comes to following current practices in changing or not changing surnames in marriage.  I stumbled upon this collection of commenter anecdotes from The Dish.  One reader notes that our choices in terms of surnames is actually changing and will most likely challenge the art of geneology for future generations.  Coupling this name practice with my working thoughts on life and death in the digital age (catch up on your Google Death Manager reading here and here...), I continue to be struck with the ways that we find to unmoor ourselves from history and tactile existence.  Liberation may often be called for (spoken as a feminist who chose not to change her surname in marriage) but the existential philosopher in me wonders, what is real?  The digital age conflates form and content in ever new and challenging ways.  Our e-mail, social media, digital pictures not only communicate and share our thoughts and memories but they also hold them, or do they?  What does inheriting the stew of thousands of mundane, secret, time-sensitve, and time-limited e-mails of a loved one really mean?  Can you box them up and stick them in the attic for future generations to pour through?  Or does our digital existence and singular names actually speak to the intrinsic illusory nature of mortals?  The concept of legacy shifts beneath us in this modern age.  Literally, how will you be remembered?


2 Responses to “Surnames in the Digital Age”

  1. Diane M says:

    Well, I like the idea of making up new, blended names.

    Dislike the Quebec law that says you may not change your name. How is being told what to do liberating?

    For geneology, no doubt it will be harder, but on the other hand, computers may help us compensate for that. Geneology is sort of a fiction anyway. We leave out half the people and then think we are more closely related to someone than we are.

  2. annajcook says:

    Thoughtful post, Amy.

    As an historian, I have to put in my two cents regarding the notion that somehow the digital age is one uniquely “unmoored” from history. Historians — at least the scholars who do the social and cultural history I gravitate toward — spend their professional lives acutely aware that the vast majority of human lives pass without a physical record, as such; without a “legacy” or memorial of the type elites or (more recently) middle-class families are accustomed to. We are, as a species, rather ephemeral.

    A friend of mine has an essay in review at the moment about a memorial garden in Providence, RI, built by a mother in memory of her daughter who died in childhood. I thought you might be interested in it as an exploration of physical memorials that in some sense “fail” (the child is not remembered by most who use the garden), but also succeed — the garden is still a physical space, created in memorium, which future generations of children and their families find pleasure in.

    Laura writes, in the concluding paragraphs of her essay:

    Memory thus leaves its traces on the psyche and the landscape alike. One of my favorite quotations – a justification for the essential relevance of history – is William Faulkner’s assertion: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Even when cultural memory falters – when the neighborhood calls the Gladys Potter Garden “the baby park” – the physical imprint remains. Through her mother’s act of volition, Gladys is “not even past.” The inscription revivifies her name. Through her name, we – the historians, I mean now – recover other records of her, still with us. Though she is lost to public memory, Gladys may yet be found.

    Loss is real and painful; memory is fallible and inconstant. But the task of History, as I take it, is to pick up what the travelers drop on the march. The value is to keep “counting our stock,” making all we can of what remains. Some theorists see memory and history as antagonistic; I prefer to regard them as symbiotic. I can see Gladys Potter through her garden; largely, I think, because I happen to practice my craft in an age where we write histories of childhood, histories of grief, histories of the landscape — histories of women deploying their role as mothers to enter the public sphere. Where memory gapes, history can sometimes sew back together. Look around and you will see the patches, needles, and thread. We pass on the skill and keep mending.

    Perhaps I put too much faith in the mending skills of my profession, but I do believe that future generations of historians will find ways to piece our past together, even its digital traces.