Lost in Pixelation
We all have stored in our very human memories tales of our individual cyber fires, digital calamities, instances of total annihilation of our personal stored data.
Smart people only lost their files once; they now religiously back their data up. But most of us, including myself, have had a few losses in our time. And my digital life is spread over so many clouds and applications and accounts, I’m not sure I’d be able to back up all my data if I wanted to. I still create files like a child drawing on scrap paper, more wrapped up in the process of generation than in the utilization or preservation of my work.
I remember my virtual losses as sudden events, and the data lost as total losses. But the more I try to remember how it all happened, the more I realize the processes as more akin to decay. I lost data in pieces, and rarely in whole, or due to my own memory missing.
My first loss was the loss of a blog. I had a Xanga account for two or three years, likely 2002-2005. I remember it very clearly as having been “bought by LiveJournal,” but scouring Wikipedia and Reddit for evidence of this event renders nothing that sounds like what I remember, which is an email saying my account had been rolled over to the new platform, and that I should be able to log in once, and create a new account from there. But there was some sort of glitch. I could never log in. And so I assumed all my poems, writings, glittery background HTML code, dancing cat faces and little pixelated fashion doll icons were gone.
My first loss was in no way tied to a specific device, which gives the anecdote a surprisingly modern feel. Xanga still exists, although it looks nothing like the site I remember. But I can’t remember my username, password, or even what email I would have used. Was it my first address, tied to my dad’s website domain? Or was it my Yahoo account? What even was my Yahoo address?
If I could remember my log in information, would I even want a server somewhere to remember what all I wrote? I remember printing out AIM conversations from my parents inkjet printer, folding them up and nesting them inside my journals. I wonder if I ever printed anything from my first blog? Maybe some piece of it still exists in some format somewhere.
My second defining digital loss was when my laptop died my senior year of college. I took it to the Apple store, and a self styled Genius told me he “had never seen anything like it before,” but also somehow that I was “in luck because this model of MacBook is still under warranty for faulty hard drives.” He took it into a back room where they presumably kept even more computer nerds with even less social rapport. Ten minutes later, he came back out with my shabby, well-loved laptop and an aluminum sandwich bag from the moon containing my dead hard drive. “If you really need what’s on there, contact these guys.” He handed me a card that appeared to be for some sort of mom and pop computer repair shop in San Francisco. But then at the bottom it said they specialized in data recovery for the FBI. “It’ll run you like, $1k though.”
At the time, I was upset about the papers, artist statements, and other assignment related files I would have to rewrite (deadlines!). But I also lost a fair amount of poems, short stories, and other creative writings, as well as endless Matryoshka-esque folders of reference images and personal photos. As time goes on, it’s hard to know if what I lost was mostly stuff I would have eventually deleted, or actually stuff that could never be created again.
Though this loss was tied to a physical object (I still have the drive somewhere), I remember feeling keenly afterwards like my laptop was an impostor. Its soul was gone. It was worn in all the same places, bruised at the base of the trackpad, scarred on its right bottom corner. But it wasn’t my laptop without the memory. It was just a tool, a mere computer in the body of a friend, a simulacrum of what had felt like my collaborator for four years.
My most recent losses have all been phones. I hang on to phones as long as I possibly can. Each “upgrade” translates into as much a loss as a gain in my mind. They promise all your data will transfer, but somehow, it never does. Not to mention the frustration of altered experience, the undesirable and often unpredictable transmutation of ritual interaction by the new interface of each phone. For example, when I was dating, I still had a flip phone. I remember lots of really late nights curled up in bed, in the dark, waiting for a text. The phone didn’t do anything else, the whole world wasn’t at my fingertips. So I’d wait in the pitch black with it folded up, rolling it over and over in my hand like a worry charm, focused on the message I was waiting for. Heavy interactions boiled down into a few characters, taken straight, no Candy Crush chaser. Some people seem to revel unabashed in the phone’s new capabilities; the experience for me is always tempered by how I’m forced to find new ways to connect physically with a new object.
But the loss always comes in the form of raw data lost, too: contacts always disappear in the shuffle (how do they even manage to preserve some, but not all of a data set?,) and photos, of course, of people and art, physical projects I have lost, or had been hanging somewhere exciting, and now the evidence of that context is gone. And texts. To think of all the lost text messages over my life time makes me want to cry. Love notes, evidence of friendships, closeness that is now a great distance. When I come across handwritten notes from middle school, I think about all the virtual notes I would love to still have in a physical form from high school, college, from Dan. I have emails, but not a lot of the everyday conversation we had that first year we were dating. Everything virtual is not physical, and sometimes that registers as an inherent loss.
It’s strange to think about preserving spoken conversations, however, much less lamenting the lost knowledge that is their content. Do you have any phone calls over the course of your lifetime that you wish you had a transcript of? Or better yet, a recording? I save voicemails. I used to go back and listen to voicemails more often, and worry about losing them. Now my phone lets you download voicemails as an audio file if you want, which is great for music sampling, and having. The funny thing is, simply having these files means I don’t listen to them anymore. I don’t try to memorize them. I trust, somehow, after all of these experiences, that the file will be there in the future, when I want it.
Memory is slippery, and the more time that passes, the more things are not quite how I remembered them. I think about fights with friends, and break ups. I’ve rage deleted thousands of individual texts in one sitting, before conversations were threaded together into one neat stream.
Every few years, when I dig out my little box of things from my childhood, I’m perplexed by something I saved. I don’t know the significance of half of those trinkets and notes anymore. Yet there’s always something I wish I had kept, that lost treasure that I remember so clearly in the current moment that I feel I must have just come across it recently, and where did I put it? But at one point during the intervening years, I either had a moment when I didn’t feel like it was worth having, or else it was simply lost.
I guess the question is: How much do I want to remember?