The Fragility Of The Digital

A week or so ago, during my in-laws’ visit to New York City for the July 4th weekend, we all made a trip to the Metropolitan Museum. Wall to wall art all day; as much as you could handle. Several hours later, tired and spent, still thanking our lucky stars that our lovely toddler daughter had blessed us with a lengthy nap in her stroller in the middle of the afternoon, we headed home. As we did so, I cast my mind back to some of the wonderful pieces of art I had seen in the section devoted to Greek art from the fifth and sixth centuries BC. It seemed miraculous that over two thousand years later, those artifacts were still around, still being admired by the residents of one of the world’s greatest cities.  A wondrous confluence of actors had come together to make that possible. Included in them would have to be the materials of which the artworks were made: clay, stone, metal; the methods for storing them, and their interactions with the environment.

I must admit I feel little confidence when I consider the digital artifacts that so prop up our lives today. I cannot but be bemused by the fact that I am still in possession of many letters from days long gone by even as a great deal of my digital correspondence has vanished. And the less said about photographs the better; hundreds, if not thousands, of digital photographs have vanished from my collection: mistakenly deleted, destroyed in a hard drive crash, and sometimes, mysteriously, I just can’t find them. If you thought sticking photographs in old-fashioned paper albums was tedious, think again; little compares to the mind-numbing boredom of trying to organize a digital photo collection; losses and confusion are inevitable. (In part, of course, this is because we now take hundreds of photos in the course of a typical life event–as compared to the dozens of yesteryear.)

I say this as someone who considers himself a reasonably competent technology user: the fragility of the digital is frightening. Data is all too easily wiped out, too vulnerable to technical and human disasters. Yes, we have the opportunity to backup, but we also have occasion to forget (or not, in some cases, know how.) Those who imagine apocalyptic scenarios that bring about the end of civilization often dream of rampant disease and pestilence, nuclear war, climate change, and zombie outbreaks. To this list of imagined catastrophes I add my own: a freak cosmic event, perhaps The Solar Flare From Hell, which wipes out in an instant, all digital storage on this planet. Or perhaps some suitably disgruntled hacker will write a Trojan Horse that will combine patience and a hatred for data into a malevolent mix: it would insert itself into every single storage devices worldwide, and then, after confirming full occupancy had been attained, wipe the digital slate clean.

I would write more, but I’m afraid this already flaky network connection will start acting up again, so let me sign off for now.

Then, The Eagerly Awaited Letter; Now, The Notification

Every weekday of my two years in boarding school bore witness to the implacable ritual of the mail from home: run to the teacher’s staff-room, ask for the day’s letters and postcards–sorted into piles corresponding to your ‘house‘–and then, surrounded by eager supplicants, call out the names of the lucky ones. At the end of it all, some schoolboys would walk away beaming, a letter from home eagerly to be torn open and read; yet others walked away crestfallen, left to look on longingly on those who had been lucky enough to have been the recipients of those postal missives. Perhaps our family had forgotten about us; perhaps we were ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Perhaps we did not matter; we were not important enough to be written to.

After I left boarding school, I continued to correspond with some friends by mail; I waited for their letters too, with some of that old eagerness. I would run down, time and again, to our building’s post-box, looking to see if the postman had brought goodies. This search was suffused with an irrational longing; I would check even the day after I had received a letter from my most frequent correspondent, somehow hoping he might have written two letters in a row. Sometimes I would check multiple times in a day when the the post-box remained empty; perhaps the postman had been late on his rounds, perhaps there would be two deliveries that day.

When I moved to the US, my mother wrote me letters regularly. The nightly check in the post-box, or, if my roommates had returned home before I did, on the table in the kitchen, quickly became another persistent ritual. I wanted to read her words, see her handwriting, establish contact with someone I had left behind, who I knew longed for me, and who I longed for in turn.

I never quite got over that craving for that touch, that contact, that reminder that someone had reached out.

The years rolled by. I discovered email. And the checking, the search for confirmation, grew and grew. Now, I check email–on all four of my accounts–constantly. There is a work account, a personal account, a blogging/social media/Twitter account, and lastly, an old work account, that for some inexplicable reason, I have not shut down. And there are Facebook notifications, Likes, comments, link shares, mentions, replies; there are Twitter mentions, retweets, favorites, replies. I check and check and check. On and on and on. It’s the first thing I do in the morning; it’s the last thing I do before I turn in to sleep; it’s what I do in the middle of the night if I cannot fall back to sleep after being disturbed–perhaps because of a bathroom break or my wailing toddler. (Like last night.)

I look at my inbox and see the count is at zero; my heart sinks. I see there are only spam or administrative emails; I am enraged. I post a link to a blog post and see no ‘likes’, a minuscule number of views; I am crestfallen.  I see no replies to my tweets, no mentions; I feel anonymous and ignored.

But when people do reply, and I reply, and they reply, and on it goes, I’m exhausted and seek to withdraw. Words spring to my lips but I feel too weary to transmit them through my keyboard back ‘out there.’ I crave attention and then shrink from it when it arrives. I want to ride this train, but I want to get off too.

I’m neurotic.

The Never-To-Be-Returned-To Perennial Draft

My email client shows eighty-two drafts resident in its capacious folders; my WordPress dashboard shows thirty-seven; and a quick search through various document folders on my desktop machine shows several dozen others. They are monuments and gravestones and white flags of surrender; they are signposts of intention, evidence of procrastination run amok; they are bitter evidence of an old truism, that you don’t know what you think till you see it in writing (and some of these show that I wasn’t thinking very much); they are caustic reminders of how imagination all too often outstrips effort and completion, how writerly ambition outruns ability.

Unfinished emails, some of them intemperate rejoinders to online commentary, personally critical emails, offensive or presumptive correspondence, some of them idle thoughts left half-formed, yet others overtaken by the turn of events; embarrassing reminders of what might have gone wrong had I ever, hastily and recklessly, hit the ‘send’ button; these sit in my mail folders. Very frequently, I sigh with relief at a bullet dodged, and wince at how I might have irreparably damaged a relationship. Here, there are many a drawn and then subsequently holstered gun, put away with its chambers still cold.

On this blog, my unfinished draft count had run as high as eighty; it needed some persistent cleaning up–deletions–to bring the number down. Some are mere notes to myself, with a pointer to something I felt needed response and commentary; yet others bear the mark of an incompletely worked out thought, simply run aground for lack of inspiration or perspiration. And my document folders show that I have started many more academic projects than I have finished. Like the blog posts, I have set out and then given up; the inspirational thought of the evening all too quickly turned into the laughable conceit of the morn; and sometimes, awed and intimidated by the dimensions of the presumptive task, I have let my shoulders droop, battened the hatches, and retreated. 

I have deleted many drafts over the years. Some were too ludicrous to tolerate any longer; why had I ever thought that line of thought was worth pursuing? And some too, were so incomplete, so grotesquely misshapen, that I could not even recognize the thought that had initially germinated it – let alone proceed with it any further.

And so there are the ones that remain. I humor myself, often, with the thought that I will return to them, to move them on, to push them on beyond the proverbial finishing ribbon, to bring them to conclusion and pat myself on the back for having shown persistence and gumption. But some of them will never be completed; I have moved on; I leave them around to tell me where I had gone wrong in the past and where I might again; and for all the various edificatory reasons listed above.

There is uncertainty here aplenty and certainty too, that their count will increase. But that thought is reassuring; for perhaps they will only increase as the completions do. That much is enough for now.