The down side of digital: Ephemerality

Over the years, I’ve brushed-up against something about our increasingly digital lifestyles: Digital “stuff” can, and often does disappear in an instant. I suppose the same could be said of physical objects (anyone who’s lost it all in a house fire, tornado, hurricane, etc. knows this of course). But with digital, connections with our past, our own sense of place, manifestations of our memories… They’re all so temporary. And there are lessons to be learned here.

The first lesson I learned in this area was with digital photography. I was a very early adopter with digital photography; even the low resolution and poor image quality of early digital cameras didn’t keep me away from putting my film cameras largely on the shelf, and using digital to snap anything, anywhere. I was also smart enough to put these photos on a hard disk connected to a Windows computer that I kept running essentially 24 x 7, as if it were a server. But as we all (should) know, hard drives fail, and my photo archive drive did just that. I was able to recover most — but not all — of the photos from copies on various computer hard drives, the original CompactFlash (remember that?) cards, and so forth. But there were a lot of photos — nay, memories — that were lost forever. Post-recovery, I made sure that digital photos were stored, backed-up, backed-up again, and just in case, backed-up again. (Now I have another problem: Data hoarding. But that’s another conversation for another time.)

But what reminded me of all of this?

The other evening, I was looking for something on my old MacBook Pro, a 13″ model from 2012. It’s not the oldest Mac I have (that honor goes to a 2011 iMac), but it’s the oldest I have that’s not been wiped clean. It has been upgraded, but the data has been carried forward for years. For some reason or another, I was scrolling through the Messages app; I’m one of those who deletes nothing, so there are conversations there from years ago that have not been touched. It brought a smile to my face seeing the names of people I clearly need to reach-out to, since I haven’t in too long.

And then I saw one name I sort of wished I hadn’t… That of my mother, who has been gone for nearly four years now. I read some of the message history; it made me profoundly sad. I don’t tend to live in the past; I haven’t forgotten my mom, but I certainly don’t dwell on the fact that she’s died, and I’ve moved well past the “thinking of her every day” stage. But there it was, actual dialog with her from her final months, along with the feelings that came with it — along with a renewed sense of loss.

To be honest, I was happy to see the messages still there, and I need to figure out how I might archive it before it’s lost. But it also reminded me that my final voicemail messages from my mom were lost in an iPhone upgrade, and I’m still kicking myself from not doing something to archive those before I innocently destroyed them with a careless device transition.

Similar bittersweet feelings came back a few months ago as well when I logged-in to Second Life for the first time in a couple of years. (Follow the link, or read the Wikipedia article, if you’re unfamiliar.) Back in the mid-2000s (could it possibly have been that long ago?), I spent a ton of time in SL — hours and hours every week — building things, meeting people, and generally having a great time, until it wasn’t anymore. Being a virtual reality world, everything you see is digital. Even with the relatively low resolution, even with the fact it’s on a computer monitor, when you’re inside of SL, your brain is rather easily tricked into building a sense of place. It’s fascinating to see how the brain makes sense of its world by observing that it does the same thing with a world that’s entirely digital, contrived, and artificial as it does in the one we live within each day.

But memories are tied to those things. I can still remember the elaborate buildings I built inside of SL. I can still remember the virtual homes, the virtual furniture, the outrageous avatars of others. I can remember exploring and walking around, running into “people” (or more accurately their virtual avatars) who were roaming too, and “meeting” my “friends” in virtual places to socialize, converse, and share experiences. And yet, with the click of a mouse, it was possible to destroy large swaths of that reality in the same way we are seeing the wildfires in California wiping-out real swaths of actual reality as I write this post.

Of course, virtual things being destroyed in a virtual world pales in comparison to what’s happening in California, and I wouldn’t suggest otherwise; real people don’t lose their lives when a digital neighborhood disappears.

But there’s probably more in-common between real worlds and virtual ones than it might initially appear; certainly we value the real world more than a virtual one, and certainly a virtual world is easier to replace. But I’m not actually convinced that absent our own awareness and basic intelligence that our brains necessarily know the difference. I still long to go back to the virtual places I once wandered, even though they’re long gone. I wish I could chat again to the real people behind the pseudonymous avatars I “met” inside of Second Life. To hear the dance songs again that I heard a decade ago in the virtual nightclubs of SL. See the same virtual lights and the same virtual dance floors with the same virtual people. And that longing is not particularly different than the longing I feel for being able to call my mom when life’s not going so well, or I can’t remember parts of the family tree, or I wanted to know the name of some place we visited when I was a kid. She’s gone — and so are all of the digital, virtual markers that created the virtual sense of place I experienced back in the day.

Memories are memories, and longing is longing. I’m not sure if the fact that some of it existed in the physical plane and some existed in the digital, virtual plane makes much difference to my emotions.

Backups of digital stuff aside, I suppose the real lesson here is this: Live in the moment. You never know what tomorrow will bring — or what will vanish in an instant along the way.