On Permanence

After I wrote about time, memory and the digitization of our concept of Self, I started thinking a lot about the permanence of what we now call memory. It scared me a bit.

I wrote this post two weeks ago to deal with the feelings I had when a friend’s child died. I don’t often write from the heart (except when it comes to R.E.M. and music), and this post struck a chord. I’m happy about that. We as technologists are so caught up in the “now” we forget that there is a “past” and a “future” that surrounds it. We have bookends that are inescapable and deserve attention.

Anyhow, I created a saved search in Twitter for “ethankaplan.com” to track links and discussion to the post. Initially the search had hundreds of tweets. Now it has one.

They faded.

Permanence is not something we seem to covet as technologists. There is always something better around the corner, so honoring what we have in a permanent way is antithetical to the transience of our progress. In fact, permanence is a vestige of a corporeal society. Newspapers are meant to be permanent. Books. Data? Not so much.

Sure we claim to honor permanence through archiving, but in reality we window our present view to just that which is in front of us. How often have you looked through your archives? They don’t fade like old paper, or smell. But instead the very fact that they don’t age gives them a faintly ominous and obdurate malignancy.

“Don’t show me email that LOOKS like it was written today, even though it is eight years old. I’m not that person anymore.”

We don’t like fissures between time, memory and representation.

Twitter somehow, over six years, has decided that making permanence a part of their core competency was not as important as capturing the zeitgeist of “now.” Sure you can access old tweets, but its hard to do so without intent for memory. You can’t find the memory in any way. My tweets have faded from the world because an item on a backlog on a SCRUM board had not yet been tasked to a product team, or deemed to complicated to work on for now.

And yet in 50 years, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and others will be the largest home for the recollection and cumulative remnants of dead people in the world. Much as time and memory have collapsed due to an unchanging morphology, so too will mortality over time. The dead will live as they had, commingled with the bytes, bits, signals and data of the living.

At some point in the not to distant future, the remnants of the dead online could out number the creations from the living.

If we allow it to.

Maybe Twitter’s fear of the past is not so much a product of search indexes, engineering resources and volume, but a fear of the cumulative effects of the past weighing down the vibrancy of the present?

Maybe our fear of the empty isn’t projected toward an uncertain future or what happens after we die. Maybe that fear is of the full: trying to build, shape and live in a future constantly weighed down by the exponential enormity of the past.

I am 33 years old. The exponential history and remnants of my life as both a person and a digital avatar fit on 12 hard drives, 24 platters totaling 20 terabytes of redundant storage. This is data that extends back to roughly May of 1993 in still readable forms. The progression of data has accelerated exponentially over time to the point where I’m adding data at a rate of about a terabyte a year.

I am 33. I’m afraid of this data. I can go through my Drobo and RAID to find pieces of my life I’d like to forget. Parts of it that were sad, depressing, anxiety inducing and scary. I can also find happiness, joy and triumph. I can both wallow and bask in files and photos. And I always leave the confines of the drive feeling nostalgic and wary.

I never delete a file.

Permanence is not something we as humans are good at. The records of our lives are always curated and crafted. History is made not only by the victors, but with a high pass filter on what victory meant subjectively to those that were given the privilege to author it. We shaped, honed and curated our permanence and mitigated exponential accumulation.

This is no longer the case. We are permanent beings outside of filters, control or the effects of age. Permanent beings who will live as relics in perpetuity so long as others deem the efforts to maintain these deceased avatars as worth continuing.

We are immortal and permanent beings at the mercy of those who’s subjectivity is informed only by their fetishization of the Now.

Just like us.

I hope they never delete my files.


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