Creating a digital time capsule for my son

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You know that Google Chrome commercial where a dad sets up an email account for his newborn daughter and sends future Sophie Lee notes, pictures and videos throughout the years? Yes, the commercial with the tender piano soundtrack that stops you in your tracks and the dad’s sweet words and beautiful smiling family that bring tears to your eyes?

My friend emailed me that commercial the other day with the brilliant idea of doing just what Dear Sophie’s dad does, something of a digital time capsule. Of course! It is 2012, and that box in which I’ve started collecting sentimental items for him just seems so analog. I mean, what happens if we lose the box? Or it gets water damaged? And isn’t it true that if it’s not online, it doesn’t really exist?

A few days after my son was born I started writing letters. I wrote regularly — sometimes every day, sometimes once a week or so — for his first year. I recounted his arrival, the skills he was picking up, the lessons he was teaching me. Some may need filtering, as they were brutally honest in those difficult early months. But mostly they are gushing love letters to my growing boy.

I just revisited that now-32-page Word doc on my computer and penned a note to him for his 18-month birthday. I decided I want to keep it up as he grows, marking milestones — his as a little boy and mine as a mother. But I wasn’t ever sure how — or when, or really if — I was going to give him these letters. Save them to a jump drive and stow them it away somewhere until the universe tells me it’s time for him to read them?

Email address for baby
Create a digital time capsule for baby.

Alas, the digital time capsule! I can email him the Word document (Will that format endure the test of time?) and then periodically email him letters over the years. I can send him the short movie I made of his first year. I can scan the letter my father wrote before he was born, and attach photos of him when he was minutes old, or first smiling, or sitting atop a giant pumpkin this fall like a full-blown toddler boy. I can scan the birth announcement we mailed (yes, via USPS, old school style), his first of many incident reports from daycare for falling on his face, the ultrasound images. I can have friends and family write him notes and send pictures.

However, I do have a couple of gripes with this approach. It feels flat to me. There’s no curating or design. My son will one day open an Inbox filled with a long list of items begging to be opened all at once with very little structure or prioritizing. Really, I’d like it to be more like Facebook, where he as an area or site dedicated to his life, filled with notes and pictures and video. An email account lacks that visual appeal and completeness, as does a USB drive or CD full of files, which also lack the personal touch. Is there an alternative? Has someone created the digital time capsule program? An app?

Whatever the digital approach, there will also be file format and media issues, which a Library of Congress blog eloquently addressed, suggesting you save files in multiple formats. The author also advised you include a list of file names, including extensions, with descriptions of the contents in a text file, which has the greatest possibility of being opened in the future. Relying on Gmail or any other online service feels tenuous as well — and this all feels like a lot more work than stashing some notes and pictures in a box.

Also, I fully realize there will always be things that can’t be emailed. I can’t scan the tiny tuft of blonde hair that I now hold in a box to remember his first haircut. There will be favorite stuffed animals to memorialize (right now it’s a soft book decorated in tags called “book-book” that he sleeps with and covets) and first teeth to keep. Pictures of these items just won’t do them justice.

So as I ponder this approach, I’ve set up the Gmail account for my son. But I’ll still keep his plastic keepsake box handy for the items that just can’t be digitized.