Tuesday, December 17, 2013
There's a moment in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go where two of the characters go looking for a cassette tape in a coastal town in England. One of the characters had lost a tape in her childhood and she hadn't heard it in years. They go hunting through second hand shops until, magically, there it is. She found it.
It occurred to me as I was reading this passage that we'll never again have experiences like this, at least not in the same way.
The other night, a random comedy sketch popped into my head, something one of my college RAs played for me on a road trip, The Vestibules' "Boulbous Bouffant." It's a really surreal bit of sound. I had searched for it on the Internet in the early 2000s and had, laboriously, unearthed it somewhere on a random site.
This time when I searched for it, not only did it take two seconds to find and listen to, there were literally dozens of YouTube tribute videos to choose from.
In Never Let Me Go, with today's Internet the character would never have had to hope it was waiting for her in a second-hand shop. She could have listened to it on Spotify or found the mp3s on iTunes or, if she really craved the tape, she probably could have found it on eBay.
Of course precious physical objects will still exist in the future, but these small mysteries are disappearing quickly. More and more of the world is constantly at our fingertips, wherever we are. And what's more, there's very little that disappears into the past.
It used to be that electronics seemed ephemeral. Now, if you want something to be permanent, put it on the Internet.
Etched in Digital Stone
Whenever I talk about e-books, there are still some people who will chime in and say they can't imagine putting their library at the risk of a glitch and losing everything.
This is a serious misunderstanding. My e-book library is far more secure than anything on paper. My e-books live on multiple devices, they're backed up to my local backup drive and both Amazon's and Apple's clouds. If I ever lost one device I could instantaneously download the e-books onto another.
My apartment could burn down or flood and I'd lose all my paper books, but in order to permanently lose my e-books there would have to be some sort of electron catastrophe that simultaneously destroyed all of the world's computer servers (and presumably everything else with a computer chip), in which case we would have much more to fear from planes falling from the sky and cars careening through the streets than we would from whatever happened to our e-books.
There's something about digital files that still feel so impermanent to people, and yet barring an unimaginable apocalypse they're more permanent than anything etched in stone.
People are now coming around to the unsettling reality that everything you say on social media lasts forever, but it cuts even deeper than that. This week we learned that Facebook may even be keeping track of the status updates you started to write but deleted before posting. Google knows every search you've ever made (and so, perhaps, does the NSA). There's very little you can do online that won't be stored, somewhere, forever.
Our photos don't fade and curl their edges and get lost in basements or left behind when we move, they live on perfectly preserved in Flickr accounts and Facebook and iPhoto. Purging yourself after a breakup doesn't mean collecting a few things and putting them in a box to the left, there is an entire digital trail that is nearly impossible to erase. And reputations can be destroyed in seconds, whether you deserve it or not.
We all know this is rapidly changing our lives. Are we aware of just how much?
To Forget is Human
What happens when you can't forget?
There have been people who have been reputed to have "perfect" memories, and they endlessly fascinate us, even if the supposed perfection of their memories can be overblown. One woman particularly noted for her memory calls it "agonizing," and remembers slights as intensely as she did when she experienced them.
Whether there are true consequences for remembering everything, it is certainly uncharted territory for humanity. Photographs didn't even exist two hundred years ago, now there are 208,000 of them uploaded to Facebook every minute. Where before only the lives of kings and emperors were recorded for posterity, now all of us have digital trails that would put those kings to shame.
All your digital mistakes, all your e-mails, all your photos, many of your darkest thoughts... they're preserved for eternity. You may now have the comfort of living your life mainly offline and may even be a social media recluse, but so much of your life is still out there.
Earlier in the year I was on a BBC Radio 4 show about Estrangement in the Social Media era, and there was an expert on the show who specializes in erasing people from the Internet. The unbelievable lengths people have to go to achieve that end serves only to illustrate how completely impossible it really is for most everyone.
There are now debates taking place in Europe and Australia about the "right to be forgotten" on the Internet, trying to preserve some sort of analog analogy into the digital era, but this seems to me to be a case where the genie is out of the bottle.
We're going to have to get used to permanence in a world that used to forget.
Never Let Me Go
We no longer live in a world where it's hard to find a cassette you once had and you have to go hunting through dusty bins to find it again. We no longer live in a world where two loved ones will fall completely out of touch and are unable to find one another.
Humanity will never be permanent, at least on a cosmic timeline, but as long as our computer servers persist none of us will truly be forgotten. Long after our bodies have been turned to dust our digital footprints will live on, our searches and our e-mails and our online existence preserved as 1s and 0s in some chips in some computers in some server farms scattered around the world.
Sure, in some sense this newfound immortality is academic since we won't be around to experience it. But how is this affecting us now?
How many people are staying in relationships because they fear how starkly public breakups can be in the Facebook era? How many people have had their reputations destroyed online by one youthful indiscretion or even a colossal misunderstanding? How many people are confronted every day by the digital ghosts of their exes or loved ones who have passed away?
And what about those small moments that depended on the impermanence of our possessions and memories, the thrill of finding something we thought we had lost forever or had spent years and miles trying to find?
Now that we have access to nearly every book and movie and piece of music ever made, I wouldn't give it up. I wouldn't go back to a world that forgets. But I hope we'll still have some small miracles in the Internet era, like a cassette in a dusty bin we couldn't have possibly found anywhere else.