I woke up groggy last Wednesday after a series of vividly convoluted dreams. My toes stumbled upon my Macbook at the edge of my bed. Ah, yes–this again. Hulu dreams: the condition of falling asleep with your laptop open, while Hulu broadcasts an infinite playlist of suggested shows all night long, inspiring seemingly strange yet perfectly-narrated dreams. I skillfully shut the laptop with my lower appendages and hug my pillow tighter; 15 more minutes.
When I do eventually wake up, I do what I do every morning. 1) Reach for phone 2) check personal e-mail 3) check work e-mail 4) check facebook notifications 5) skim public twitter account stream 6) skim private twitter account stream 7) write down bullet notes about dream in my Momento diary app. Then, and only then, have I sufficiently briefed myself for the day ahead of me.
This morning, at some point between checking e-mail and type-scribbling details about my dream, I decided to reach for my laptop and go in for “the real thing” (iPhone, do not cry from under-utilization, I will return to you soon enough on my elevator ride or while in line for a coffee.) I open my laptop to a familiar start-up tone, paired with an awful clicking sound. I know that sound well, and the little optimist living somewhere buried in the folds of my brain says, “don’t worry, it’s nothing.” But alas, it is something. The entire screen is grayscale, aesthetics reminiscent of pre-OS X days, and a flashing folder dawns a single symbol: one giant question mark. Oh, how many questions that punctuation mark included: what the hell happened? Is my hard drive really gone-zo? When’s the last time I backed up? Why me? Is this some kind of karma? Did I not hold the door for the couple with groceries behind me last week?
It’s a terrible feeling when you lose your data. It’s not just inconvenient, it’s literally a tugging sensation at the emotional level of your internal organs. Your stomach wretches. You walk around all day with that inexplicable feeling of confusion and self-loathing, a tragedy has occurred. And how could you not? It’s not just your computer, it’s a part of you. You identify in some way with the songs you listen to in your iTunes library. You hold onto memories of a trip to Europe with a folder of 900 pictures and 35 videos. You store literary accomplishments like that 45 page thesis that nearly took your sanity the last semester of college. Your data exists on your computer as pockets and piles of information that make up who you are. Suddenly, one day without warning your computer crashes and you lose a huge part of yourself. You remember the melodies of your favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd songs, but you can no longer elicit the feeling of any of their hits at any given moment. You’ll never forget how amazing EuroTrip 2010 was, but the image of that sheep meat you almost had to eat in Spain, and the look on your roommate’s face after she actually did–gone. Any memory of the tone of your voice and point of view from college, exists solely in your head, forever re-written as most of our memories eventually become as we age.
In a recent NYTimes article, Carina Chocano speaks on The Dilemma of Being a Cyborg, and points out that these types of data losses do not mimic the natural human process of forgetting. “It happens all at once, not gradually or imperceptibly, so it feels less like an unburdening than like a mugging.” But this is what happens when we rely on technology for needs that were previously filled by our natural biology. I tend to look at technological tools as an enhancement to human capability, not a replacement. Though I am beginning to see this as myself re-branding the implications of my technologies’ capabilities, the way you would excuse the subpar behavior of a love interest you’ve romanticized. Sure, I see it as a +1 that my iPhone will remind me to grab post-its on my lunch break today. I don’t think it negates my ability to remember something extremely important if I need to. But what about the ability to remember the wide-eyed, adrenaline-overloaded thoughts on my first day of college 20 years from now? Or the first words I ever spoke to someone who’d go on to change the course of my life?
I don’t remember emotional details the way I used to. These days, I journal as a form of therapy. There are thoughts clouding my vision, and I must wrestle them out of my skull and onto a word document. Once the pieces are put onto my screen, I can read them clearly analyze them, and evaluate my sanity on said subject. Then I click save and put them away. I’m comforted by the fact that if I need them again, I know they’re there in my “Thoughts” folder, but I don’t carry them around with me at all times. When my hard drive crashed, the first thing I thought was, “My journal!” All these thoughts I’d untangled–the progressive pits and peaks of a young 20-something, elaborately spilled into my MacBook–gone. I knew I would go on to read these in the future, a sort of checking in on the past. But now, there’s no record of this huge part of my self work. It’s impossible to recreate the musings of a moment, too emotional to navigate the jungles of the past, and too disappointing to know that I won’t have the vivid memories of this time.
But alas, c’est la vie. It’s the trade-off we make when we rely on our technological counterparts as an extended 6th sense, as a part of our self, an external brain. Do we attempt to live presently, without the necessity of documenting our past performances? Or simply accept that our digital extensions are imperfect, sometimes failing us the way our own bodies do. Luckily, I get to postpone my decision a bit longer. My 15-inch portal of glory has pulled through in a miraculous recovery, allowing me to keep straddling my nostalgic and present selves. Oh, and I’ve also updated the back ups of my data on two separate external hard drives. Just as the morning I woke up to that awful question mark, there’s no real good answer why or how it happened. I guess my digital karma kicked in this time.