A year or so ago I was talking to my friend L. about an experience we have in common—with each other and probably with a bunch of you—which is the periodic longing to contact someone we cannot, for health reasons, have in our lives in any capacity. I was feeling pretty self-congratulatory about my frankly MSW-level analysis, which was: “you don’t want to text her, you want to text the person you wanted her to be for you, so the question is, what do you need that person for right now?” And I was about to go on to say “there must be another, healthier way to get those needs met.” Except I realized: no, there probably fucking isn’t. Or rather, there’s probably a healthier way to get those needs met, but like most healthy alternatives it will simply never be as satisfying. What’s so heartbreaking about leaving someone in the past, someone you felt strongly about, is that you will never feel precisely the way you felt around them ever again. Even if that feeling was mostly bad, it’s lost, and it’s the loss you grieve for.
Let me tell you, I ambushed myself with that one. I didn’t feel so smug after that.
For 15 years I have managed not to contact the person in my life who functions this way, though once when he emailed me I wrote a poison pen reply that remains one of the most cutting things I’ve ever composed. (You think I’m going to say “and I didn’t send it,” but I did! I sent it to everyone else I knew, just not the person I was replying to. I don’t believe in hiding my light under a bushel.) But I go through these phases, like L. does, like we all do probably, where I wish I could talk to the person I thought I knew when he wasn’t trying to hurt me. I don’t know exactly what I need that person for sometimes, the person I imagined he was who he never even tried to be. I feel its absence, though, or rather I feel a concordance of absences: both the man I believed I loved and the man who found cruel joy in taking me apart. All of it, the effervescence and the insults and the sex and the loneliness, dug out like a divot around a cancerous mole.
It’s so strange to think about how many feelings you’ll simply never have again. All of them, really. At 41, I am (I assume) having versions of the same feelings I had at 31, and 21, and so on. But many of the conditions of those feelings—not least the actual climate inside my brain—are not only changed but lost, irreproducible. I will never be able to replicate the specific emotional tenor of being 21, let alone 11. The feelings engendered by the people who hurt us, which were bad but also good—those are gone, of course. But so is, say, the feeling of the first warmish day after winter, or reading a favorite book, or petting a dog, or any other three events I could name. You may experience them again, and you may even experience them in the same place, but you can’t ever feel them with the same brain. (This is leaving aside, of course, the fact that ideas like “a warm day after winter” are themselves being eroded by catastrophic changes in the world.) As Heraclitus, my favorite of the pre-Socratic philosophers because he seemed like an enormous weirdo pain in the ass and also because he died by burying himself in manure, put it: you can’t step into the same river twice.
You can try, of course. In 2011 Spotify had its U.S. launch, and because it was now so easy to make a mix with nearly any song on it, I started putting together mixes with much stricter rules. Specifically I started a series of autobiographical mixes, first retroactive, then contemporaneous: songs or artists I listened to in a particular year, arranged to form the story of that year. It has to tell the narrative in roughly chronological order, but it also has to be a good mix, or as close to good as you can make it. I imagine that a person who knew nothing would be able to understand a few beats of my year, and someone who knew more might be able to pick out which songs referred to which events or people or emotions. But for me, as the person who both lived the year and chose the songs, who analyzed the lyrics and meticulously rearranged the tracks, the mix is something between a code and a time capsule. Some aspect of each song—a line, a stanza, occasionally even additional paratext like a memory of a concert—evokes, with pinpoint accuracy, one of those lost emotions. I am still not being lonely (or whatever emotion, but mostly lonely) in precisely the same way that I was when I encrypted that feeling into a song. But I can conjure up the specific parameters of each gradation of loneliness. Or other feelings, but you know.
(I can’t embed playlists, because they probably won’t show up in your email, but here’s 2013 and 2014, which I think are pretty good examples of the project, and just for extreme variety here’s a retroactive one for 2001 through to very early 2002.)
For a long time last year I thought I’d lost all my digital photos from 2002 through 2005. (This overlapped with the era of physical photos, so I would have still had a few mementos, but only a few.) Over the previous 15 years I had, with incredible trust and naivete, simply left them where I’d always kept them: on a server belonging to one of my high school exes, who I’m pretty sure currently hates me, inasmuch as he’s ever had an emotion as strong as “hate.” (To be clear, we were still friends when I was uploading the photos! Also, I’m not being mean; his apathy was legendary and one of my favorite things about him.) Then one day I went to look for something, one of my own archival images, and got an error message: you don’t have permission to view this. A few years ago I visited my college town and during some down time went to campus intending to do some research at the library; when I got there I found that the facade was still standing but the entire rest of the building had been caved in, preparing for a ground-up renovation. This felt similar: looking through old familiar widows, expecting walls of records, facing a void. Not exactly the burning of the Library of Alexandria, but a similar, smaller, more personal loss, the destruction of an archive that was only important because it was mine.
The conventional wisdom is that nothing disappears on the internet, but of course things disappear all the time; even the impossibly vast, numinous mesh of information and communication we think of as “online” is, at its heart, a series of tubes. Or anyway, it’s a series of computers, and most of those computers are large and powerful and remote, and some of them are in your high school ex-boyfriend’s house in Northern Virginia, but the difference is one of scale. The photos you store on Facebook live in more distributed, more stable places than the ones you store on a single machine in a house where you once ate a weed brownie and got so high you forgot what a music video was, but data has to live somewhere and that means that it can die. The cloud has feet of clay.
(Sidebar for a related story: back when personal laptops were a little more user-serviceable, my hard drive died, taking a grad school term paper down with it. My friend Handler listened to the pneumoniac chugging of the computer try to spin up, and immediately told me to remove the hard drive and leave it in his freezer overnight. The next day we were able to boot the computer just long enough to move my files, including my paper, somewhere safe. Friction between the drive head and the platter was physically preventing the drive from working properly; putting it in the freezer made these metal parts shrink back into compliance, for a moment at least. Computers often seem to run on magic, especially now that we never see their insides. You will never regret remembering that they are as physical as bones and blood.)
My photos have come back now, as mysteriously as they disappeared; for all I know the machine they were on just lost power for a couple of months. I saved them to my own computer this time, but I was reminded of their mortality: the fallibility of these external brains on which we store the bulk of our memories. There’s so much of my past that I only recall because I have photos, or emails, or god help me my Livejournal archive. If I lost all those digital records, who would I be?
I guess what I’m building up to is that everything is lost, and everything is losable. In a weird way, that feels like an optimistic sentiment. If everything is lost, what do we have to lose? I think often, increasingly often, of how wistful I’ll feel in ten or 20 years when I look back on this time, the absolute luxury of it, having enough food and water and sometimes even being too cold. But will I even remember it, really? Or will I just recall a shadow, the facade of the library with nothing but rubble beyond? The internet lives in fallible machines, and it cannot live forever; my photos will go, my playlists will go, maybe sooner than we think. Our memories live in even more fallible meat, and they’re being erased as soon as we make them. It’s sad to lose them, like all loss is sad, but maybe it’s a kind of freedom too.