Column: Erasing a life

Published on September 9, 2014.

To buy a new tablet, I traded in my old one. It was an original iPad from 2010, and despite constant use, did not look the worse for wear. (Its case, however, the second in almost four years, was about to come apart at the seams.) To trade it in, I spent a few days scrubbing it of traces of its previous life.

I mean, of course, my life. It is amazing to realize that the tablet as we know it is only four years old, that Twitter is only a seven-year-old tyke, and Facebook, that preteen prodigy, is only 10—and yet the tiniest details of our ordinary lives are caught in the filaments these new media have woven around us.

What seemed like a simple task, to back up the content that I needed and then to remove everything that was “fraught with background” (to borrow Eric Auerbach’s wonderful phrase) turned out to be anything but. In the first place, I could not back up all my files in the iCloud (the Apple service launched only three years ago), and I did not want to. It wasn’t the prospect of spending a little more to access more storage; it was the old nagging feeling (perhaps really just an illusion, in our technology-enabled age of decreasing privacy) that one should not put all one’s files in one basket.

What to do with the hundred-plus PDFs of books and manuscripts, Supreme Court decisions and controversial laws, peace agreements and papal encyclicals, that I had accumulated over the last four years? (This was a separate trove from the hundred or so PDFs stored in my desktop and my netbook.) I tried various means of copying them, including a time-intensive transfer to a Kindle reader, but the most convenient answer turned out to be to dump them into Google Drive. I know, I know. Privacy advocates will laugh at my choice; perhaps I should just have paid for a premium version of PDF Notes from the start?

But going over the PDF files stirred memories. Three years ago, for example, while researching the history of the initial American intervention in the Philippines in the late 19th century, I had come across two outstanding compendiums of American sentiment pro and con. “Patriotic Eloquence” (1900) gathers together speeches made by American politicians in those years, “relating to the Spanish-American war and its issues.” “Cartoons of the Spanish-American War” (1899), which compiles the trenchant work of the Minneapolis Journal’s political cartoonist “Bart,” offers the Filipino reader a visual overview (to belabor the obvious) of the steady American march to empire.

But the books, even though I had studied them closely and appreciate their historical import, were mere prompts. Storing them reminded me of one extraordinary course I took during my fellowship year: a graduate seminar with seven students and two eminent professors, where the amount of reading required was 500 pages, more or less, every week. A delinquent student back in the day, I determined to do much better this time around. I am happy to say I did in fact do the required reading and engaged in weekly debate (there was no choice; there were only seven of us)—except for that one time when I was able to read only the first 200 or so pages of the weekly assignment. When the discussion threatened to go into unread territory, the habits of a delinquent student came back easily, and I found myself asking question after question to stall for time. Ah, as my son would say. Good times.

Removing those books from the tablet, I felt a momentary twinge; perhaps it was just nostalgia. There were more such moments to come, the more of my life I erased, bit by bit, byte by byte, from the machine that had been such a part of me.

The photos were especially troublesome.

(I finally ended up e-mailing most of them to myself. Yes, also on Gmail.)

When did we get into the habit of photographing a teacher’s blackboard scrawl, a business consultant’s densely packed slide, a restaurateur’s clever menu? The first opportunity must have been a moment of simple convenience; perhaps the lecturer was going too fast, and to use the camera in our tablet or smartphone seemed like the natural thing to do. Now almost everybody is doing it (almost everybody with a camera-equipped device, that is). The habit has become a substitute not only for taking notes, but also for our own memories.

If it’s worth remembering, it’s worth photographing.

I remember what others have told me. Separation, divorce, is especially painful because part of a couple’s memory is stored in the relationship itself. On a much more modest scale, the same thing seems to happen when we part with our devices, and remove traces of our former life.

Or maybe all this nostalgia is just some sort of protective coloring. The news about the recent hacking of the iCloud should give us all pause, even those of us without any nude photos or sex videos to our name. So much of our lives is now spent online that, without our knowledge or even implicit consent, we leave traces of what we do, where we are, why we live our lives the way we do, virtually everywhere.

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