– Previously published on ‘The Atlantic’ –
Several years ago, I started saving voicemails from my mother. It was an odd thing to do, especially for someone who continually grumbles for her mom to stop leaving messages that just say “call me.” It was during one of those rare checks, where I would have to listen to five unheard and unessential messages to get to the one that mattered, when I was suddenly hit by a sense of mortality. My mom’s message, from several weeks earlier and never listened to, wondering where I was, how I was doing, hoping I was OK — it meant something. I pressed 9 to save, instead of 7 to delete.
If you knew me, you would know that I have trouble throwing things away. I’m not a hoarder, but I develop attachments to various objects and hold on to them: I keep memory boxes of ticket stubs, matchbooks, seashells and other souvenirs from the places I’ve been — even napkins, like one from the famous Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco, where I drank Irish coffee before a Giants game in 2009. I save celebratory bottle corks; I have a bracelet a young man gave me at a concert in Los Angeles; I held on to a lobster cracker from an exceptional meal on Cape Cod. There are Mardi Gras beads and bus notes. I keep calendar books that serve as a record of milestones — the night I met my boyfriend, for example (after a football game, which is penciled in); the first time I sent the magazine I founded to press, at dawn on the chilly morning of October 2, 2008; the day I moved to New York — whenever I want to reminisce. It’s a habit I developed as a child, when my best friend and I shared our memento collection and traded custody of it back and forth. Back then I was even sentimental about objects in my own house; when my dad rearranged the furniture in our living room, I cried.
So for someone who continues accumulating keepsakes — finding more boxes and tins to tuck them into (despite the limited space of her New York City apartment) — the so-called cloud represents several opportunities: to save mementos in digital form and therefore space, and to keep oh so much more. Since I opened a Gmail account, I’ve been systematically keeping digital records of sentimental conversations and experiences with family, friends, boyfriends and others. (In high school, I used to print out meaningful AIM conversations, like one I had with a crush, before AIM began saving chat records.) I sort meaningful e-mails into folders — plane tickets go under travel, serving as reminders of where I went and when; complimentary and advice-filled e-mails from bosses get stored, too. There are love letters and breakup messages and reconciliation notes. My digital paper trail chronicles the day I started my first job (I tweeted, received “good luck!” e-mails and sent a photo of my new ID card), even the time I got swine flu — with pictures.
In true schoolgirl sentimentality, I reread e-mails that remind me of important eras of my life and how they began, like the invitation to the party I forwarded to my now-boyfriend which became our first date; the time I e-mailed my parents a picture of us, announcing our relationship for the first time. There are myriad e-mails since, from a date to watch Lost and order sushi to instances where I corrected his spelling to romantic outings he outlined via e-mail, like a roadtrip up Highway 1 and a backpacking trip on the California coast. Most reread is an e-mail he spontaneously sent me while I was far away in Europe and asleep — for which I used to painstakingly comb through e-mails, searching, but which is now starred — ending with the line, “You’re everything that I always knew you were.” Our messages are like the minutes of our relationship, along with our Gchat history before he took it (perhaps wisely) off the record — an interesting feature Google offers, for people wary of storing the records I sometimes cherish. (I went through these logs to determine the date of our anniversary.)
Because digitally seems the safest way to store memories these days, I keep Blackberry memos of, among other things, notes people send, sentimental and otherwise. And because these are on my phone’s very fallible hard drive, I also e-mail them to the cloud. There are lists of my favorite places in various cities; stories people told me that I want to hold on to; and a picture of a beergarden my boyfriend sent me recently, captioned “where we met.”
Then of course there’s Facebook, which catalogs such surreal life events as the moment I found out my best friend’s sister was also best friends with my cousin, a giant coincidence pinpointed to a Facebook message — and a slew of wall post inside jokes, some of which I can no longer decipher but which still measure the passage of time. On Facebook, not only are your photos stored but so are your comments, wall posts and status updates, as though they were invented for reminiscing. (Come December, check out the My Year in Status app for a classic example.)
If you can tell a lot about a person from their garbage, you could learn so much more from their digital footprint. My calendars might have the weekends I went away last summer, but the cloud has a much richer story, not only the plans but also what went wrong. For example, the records illustrate the time I waited in an airport for hours desperately hoping it would stop raining so we could leave; when we finally, triumphantly took off; when the plane was rerouted to Indianapolis because of a storm over Chicago, and I took a cab with three strangers through the Midwest in the middle of the night. It’s in my frustrated tweets, my e-mails to my parents and friends, in the automatic updates from the airline and in the photos of windmills I snapped on my phone. These mementos make up a multimedia quilt of history — half manual and dramatic, half digital and automated.
There are obvious dangers associated with digital file keeping, as Fox News eloquently described in its guide to sexting. (Their advice: “Delete. Delete. Delete. It may be fun to look back at your naughty repartee later, but it won’t be any fun at all to explain to your kids.”) But several recent occurrences serve as reminders that even the machines I depend on to save my memories are vulnerable to human error. Take the Flickr user who had five years of photos and history wiped out with one wrong click by a site admin. The poor guy and the public were so terrified by the idea that their photos, comments and links could be so completely obliterated in one swipe that the company had to scramble to find a way to bring it all back. Just two weeks ago, Google cleared 150,000 Gmail accounts, erasing emails and chat history and no doubt frightening many people like me. Yes, the companies managed to restore the data but it made me wonder: Am I too dependent on the cloud?
I realized my cloud dependence when I nonchalantly took my computer to the Apple store for a minor fix last summer and, believing everything was safely stored on the servers, checked the “I have backup” box and ended up with a clean hard drive. The bugs were gone and so were original photos, still on Facebook but not in high-res. It was a bitter reminder to back up the old-fashioned way. I’d be devastated if all my sentimental files, which I revisit often, were lost — not to mention the documents, essential for a writer, which used to be backed up on multiple external drives and are now stored on Google’s servers.
Relying on the cloud is just so irresistibly efficient. No more printouts, bulky drives or e-mailing documents to myself (although I still do this often out of habit). Yet it’s terrifying to rely on technology more than my own memory, allowing myself to depend on it — the way I have felt when using a digital recorder in lieu of a notebook while reporting, which I learned the hard way is nearly always a disaster. So entrusting my memories and records to Google and Facebook feels like plugging in, a Matrix-like oneness as though I have a USB port in my brain. It feels like a trust fall, or maybe riding in a self-driving car (which Google is also developing, by the way). I’m not the type of sharer whose every move you can track in Facebook status updates or tweets, but I do keep extensive personal annals, a sort of digital scrapbook of my own. I do eventually delete the voicemails — then save new ones when the mood strikes me.