Opinion | Columns

On digital memory

When I was in high school—and throughout my first year of college—my then-boyfriend and I used to do something that a lot of my friends found to be strange: We wrote each other hand­written, multi­page letters. Sometimes love letters, most often simply filled with thoughts that we wanted to share—we accumulated piles and piles of these letters over three years. We wrote when we lived countries apart, but also when we lived within just a few blocks of each other.

At the beginning, I was unable to fully explain, even to myself, why we chose to rely on something so slow when we could talk so fast. When we could see each other, even. But I quickly came to realize that, beyond enjoying its romantic, old-­fashioned air, I wrote letters because I wanted to be able to hold them. To sit down in a chair, feel them, and reread the proof of where—and who—I was. I wanted a piece of tangible memory.

This tangible memory felt particularly weighty compared to the other ways we knew how to speak to each other. Our letters made us feel permanent—historical—when instant communication had made it possible to forget that communication used to be anything but.

Today, we have so many means to move from one conversation to the next—whether through Facebook, Twitter, or email—without giving thought to the one we just ended. Seemingly ­infinite inboxes, feeds, or walls require nothing from users besides participation; there is no wringing of hands as I choose which pieces of mail are insignificant enough to throw out and which ones deserve their own space in my drawer.

Snapchat takes this lightweight communication to the extreme. It provides no tangible memory, nor digital memory—its entire experience is the ephemeral. And often, it’s lovely: There are times when all I want is to share a moment, and let it go. The freedom is tremendous.

But I’ve recently started to appreciate that many of our everyday technologies don’t require my feelings to become ephemeral when I don’t want them to be. In fact, they’ve added a level of meticulous transcription that I could never recreate on my own.

Our emails, wall posts, and tweets are the journals we always wanted but never committed to writing. And not just any journals, but collaborative, multi­author journals. We live so much of our lives online; in doing so, we give away large pieces of ourselves and our stories to the tools we use for communication to be preserved. The articles we bookmark, the Facebook photos we like, the long and unruly email chains from the clubs we join—these are the stories we will want to remember and look back on. And they are already being recorded for us.

***

These records are beautiful. But painful, too.

A few days ago my best friend texted me, “Do you ever reread old emails and want to curl up in a ball and cry?”

I do. You might, too. 

She had stumbled upon a single­-line email: “I’m sorry but I don’t want to have sex with you anymore.”

I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent lying on my bed, re­reading an email from four years ago, or two years ago, or even last month. They were hours spent reliving not just the words, but the composition and the reception, the opening of an email, expecting one thing and getting another. Hours spent stuck in my digital memory, completely unable to move.

In the physical world, I stumble upon spaces that stick me like this, too. Spaces that I’ve unwittingly carved out as my sad spots. The corner of Essex and Delancey, the NYC Megabus bus stop, the third floor of Lerner. The Q train. 

But in my inbox, they’re harder to avoid. They are keywords: “Tom Friedman,” “Dovetail,” “muffins.” Even small things, like “pumpkin.” Sometimes I know what I’m doing when I go seeking, and sometimes I don’t.

And so I walk through memories with my fingers, clicking to see more, to feel more, to cry more. And I sign up for more services to record more of myself, and see my future self reliving today and tomorrow and next week through my Foursquare check-­ins and my Timehop reminders and my tweets. And my written story fills up.

This semester’s column will be another piece of digital memory. 

Dina Lamdany is a School of Engineering and Applied Science senior majoring in computer science. She is on the executive board of The Application Development Initiative. Floppy Disk usually runs alternate Mondays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com

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Anonymous posted on

I think the digital records you have are rather limited in nature, less so for pieces of paper. I expect the writings you do over the years on the web's social media will become forgotten and in some cases deleted whether purposefully or by accident or in some cases hacking and "cloud" failures, losing the content for ever to you and others. Although papers may be "lost" for periods of time, often then hand around somewhere for a long period of time and have more a traditional existence then the web which may not be the same sort of thing in 5 years time.
I recent came across an envelope containing (photo copies of)letters i wrote to people more than 30 years ago (I'm now 65.) and enjoyed seeing them again. I even mailed a few to the people who originally got them for their reminiscences also.
A handwritten letter has another characteristic your haven't mentioned, namely the handwriting itself. That has a special aspect to it, wouldn't you say ? Digital communications is sterile in this regard, don't you agree ?
I hope you will save your handwritten file off letters. When you've made you way in life thee decades from now. somebody looking things over will find something of yours or a correspondent that's handwritten of much greater interest than some digital materials, I assure you.

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