Life and Loss in the Age of Digitalerialism
It starts as a quiet whisper: “Shit.”
Then, as you begin scanning your computer screen, your eyes widen and it gets louder: “Shit!”
“SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!”
Your computer just crashed, and you suddenly realize that no matter how many times you press “Command + Z” the fatal error cannot be undone. One might experience the same reaction with a crashed hard drive, or any other technological problem. By placing our work, our entertainment, and even our memories in devices that most of us can’t begin to understand the construction of, we increase the possibility of loss. Not physical loss, but the loss of all the digital things that our computers and hard drives once produced and held. And so we mourn the death of the files to which we’d become attached. This mourning, this sense of importance that we place on our digital documents, is something new: materialism for the digital. We’re digitalerialists.
While today’s society has no judgment for those who throw fits, or whatever’s close at hand, against a wall when a piece of technology crashes, it’s seen as materialistic and completely ridiculous when someone gets upset over the loss of some thing, like a pair of earrings or an old scarf. That’s because for many people, digitalerialism has replaced our previous attachment to objects. But if all of our digital files can, with an erroneous click of a mouse, be so quickly lost, we should be weary of what we digitalize.
The wisdom of digitalerialism was recently questioned on “The Burning House,” a blog that collects photos and lists of items that people would take if their house were burning down. Since the blog was created in May, 202 people have submitted posts. A lot of the posts have similar items — photographs, books, passports, letters and the occasional pet. Then, on August 19, 27-year-old musician and student David Ding posted a photo of nothing. Instead of a list, he wrote about the insignificance of material objects in his life. Since everything can either be photographed or scanned, he said, digital copies have eliminated his need to hang onto “things.” As of September 10, 130 people had “liked” Ding’s post.
Ding is a digitalerialist to the extreme. Unconcerned with the potential loss of physical objects, he praises the digital equivalent of the things that others have to worry about carrying with them when their house is burning down. But Ding, like so many others, is overlooking the vulnerability of the digital. When hard-drives crash, and the big invisible web cloud bursts, and all of the scanned copies of old family photos can no longer be found on Flickr, hard core digitalerialists like Ding are going to be sorry that they replaced their memory boxes with weightless files they can’t even touch.
Most of us have yet to enter the realm of Ding’s extreme digitalerialist state. So before digitalerialism becomes a real word, let’s be straight about what it means to throw our care for sentimental objects into files on our hard-drives. Trading memory boxes for a folder on your desktop called “Memories” may make your life more organized and allow you to travel light, but you’ll be giving up the smell of old paper, the sand that falls out of seashells stolen from faraway beaches, the decade-old scratches of mixed CDs, and the self-conscious scrawl of love letters from junior high.
Before we allow ourselves to become overcome with the weightless wonder of technology, before we run out of our burning house empty-handed because we know that somewhere in the web cloud there’s a copy of all our photos, just remember that there’s a difference between looking at a picture of your grandmother’s wedding ring and feeling the weight of it in your hand. And remember how quickly that screen can go black.