Normally, this wouldn’t matter so much.
A few nights ago, I logged into an old Yahoo account that I habitually checked and used for retrospective purposes: I’d had the account since the jingoistic days of the Bush administration – circa 2003 – and I’d accumulated an impressive amount of internet history on it. If I ever wanted to know what spam was being sent to me in the decadent months before the 2008 economic crisis, it was there for my private gratification.
Lo and behold, Yahoo Mail had deleted all of those emails. The account, they told me, was starting fresh from now on. I had probably gone past my terabyte limit, or my account had been compromised during a global hacking enterprise, or something equally foggy and unhelpful. In the first few moments, the technical realities did not really register.
What I felt when I saw that white flash of “your inbox is empty” on my screen was cold, sweeping panic. In the first few hours, I scrambled in search of ways to recover my treasure trove of internet memorabilia. I contacted the servers. I made the right appeals. I even prayed. But deep down I knew it wasn’t going to change anything. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
I realize that in the grand scheme of historic losses – from the scrolls of Alexandria to the Faberge Eggs misplaced during the Bolshevik Revolution – this might not make the cut. But in the grand scheme of epidemics, everything matters. Every shred of unimportant history is relevant. Every newsletter from a bygone website hosted on Geocities is an irreplaceable document.
I’ve read many articles telling us that the Internet will help us through this quarantine, and God knows we’d be much less sane without it, but if the Internet is a beacon of light on a dark sea of silence and misinformation, then the one thing it can’t do right now is blink. In that blink, in that momentary glitch, years of virtual experience are erased. Chains of personalized stories are broken. History is undone, even at this very small scale. The specific naivety of the early 2000s becomes as distant a memory as the wide-eyed innocence of poodle skirts and drive-ins. Yes, my plight may be small, but it is indicative of a larger illness: we can’t rely on the Internet to document us anymore. We used to joke about the painful endurance of online laundry: once it’s “out there” it never goes away. But I think the more we age with the Internet, the more we realize that some things do, in fact, “go away.” Some stories are buried too deep or completely erased, some records are broken or undecipherable, some platforms are uprooted, and some hosting sites were never “here” to begin with. There’s no one recording us anymore, not really, not faithfully. Whatever was solid the day before becomes make-believe the day after. You might argue that this is just the epistemic leakage of the 2016 elections, but really, it’s been a long time coming.
And so, sitting here in front of the empty fridge that is my inbox, I think about how much history, virtual or otherwise, will be erased in the next couple of months, history pertaining precisely to what we are living now. I try to think of ways to prevent it – to preserve what’s left. How can I keep track? How can any of us keep track? There’s so much content to curate and we may not even be given a chance to make a selection.
The answer that’s whispered in my ear is that, after all, it doesn’t matter. History has never been a sure thing. Records have always been tampered with. Data’s never here to stay. Frankly, it’s a miracle we still have so much concrete knowledge about the past.
The difference in my thinking now is that we’re all sitting ducks in our homes, surfing the web for ways to inform and entertain ourselves, and we are blindly surging forward, conditioned by the format of our online experience never to look back. And while we consume and scroll and click on the next link for the next story, behind us invisible mechanisms sweep our tracks in the snow, erase our footprint and everything in between.
It makes me think of old cartoonists who only sketched half of the mouse in order to get it moving. The remainder of its body would trail off into the whiteness of the page; the implication being that we knew the rest was there, but we did not need to see it.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, tonight, when the shutters are drawn and the streets are empty, I do think we need to see it.
Image: “Apple Optical One Button Wired Mouse” by Martin Pettitt, licensed under CC 2.0.