Letting Go of the Digital Past

Technology evangelist Robert Scoble is worried: the past is slowly, and sometimes not so slowly, slipping away from him. Online social media services archive imperfectly. Photos vanish into unreadable or corrupted formats. Logins, and even entire business enterprises, pass away without fanfare. And he’s got tips to help you plug the leaks.

But let me put in a good word for impermanence. Things seeping away, getting lost in time, imperfect legacies: that’s just part of what the past is all about. You lose stuff. That’s how human memory works too: it slowly fades out or becomes distorted. There may even be good psychological reasons for not fighting the process (or at least not becoming too anxious about fighting it), a case for not seeking perfect fidelity. At the very least, the loss of data, the maddeningly just out of reach face or song or quote: these are experiences just as poetically valuable and as interesting to me as some idealized total recall.

Scoble in particular mourns the loss of his baby’s first cry, vanished into the digital ether with the Twittergram service he recorded it on. I can see how that might be frustrating on some level… but on the other hand, I’m not sure that it’s ever really worth too much effort or regret trying to be completist when it comes to memorabilia from your own life. You can share a baby’s cry with the grown man it became, and that might well be interesting in its own right… but really, it’s not really going to reproduce the moment you, as parents, first heard it.

And memories are often paradoxically more powerful when they’re unaided. Me, I can’t quite remember the face of the first girl I ever really had a crush on. I know pictures exist (though none online), and maybe someday I’ll look back. Or maybe I’ll bump into her again someday. But the face will still just fade away again. And that unformed image will swim at the edges of my memory, tickling all sorts of mysterious and mixed emotions from equally inaccessible past moments. And maybe that’s right where it belongs.

Still, I might nevertheless try to, say, back up my tweets someday. But as witty and utterly unmissable as my ingenious 140-character insights are… having them all face a tragic, accidental deletion someday is far less frightening to me than the (frankly more likely) possibility of saying that one stupid thing that will be then remembered for all time. I mean them to be light and ephemeral.

And it’s certainly true that not every brilliant thing I’ve said has yet been fully appreciated and celebrated by the entire world. But on the other hand: they each had their moment, had their chance, and it’s better to move on: there’s so much still to be said.

Plus, a lot of what I’ve enjoyed with twitter over the past year is how the immediacy of social media can quickly become obscurity when you try to rewind back through it all. You’re either living in the stream of information, quips, counter-comments or else the whole enterprise becomes more and more culturally unintelligible: you lose your grip on how the fads, in-jokes, lingo and so on change over time. Every moment spent trying to reflect or relive is time not spent participating in the present.

There’s a deep insight there somewhere. We all really do need to accept that there are people, experiences, information that we’re just going to miss out on or lose touch with. Learning to let these things go without overanxious regret is, I think, central to finding happiness in a world with too much information and far too many choices. Life is finite, but the present is always both infinite and unrepeatable.

So I think I’m willing to accept, maybe even embrace, whatever digital lessons in data loss that serendipitously come my way. I can always make more.

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~ by Drew on 2009/09/18.

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