Somewhere in my past is a series of emails that I’d love to revisit. But I don’t know where or how to find them. They may be on a hard drive from a computer way back in the queue of those that I’ve lived with, and worked on, for twenty years or so. They could even be backed up on, good God, a floppy disk! It’s unlikely I’ll find them. My curiosity about what’s in them may not be strong enough to motivate me toward that level of digging.
So what happens to those parts of our history?
In the past, people wrote letters, kept hand-written journals, papers and notes and these form part of our collective knowledge – we can find them in attics, in filing cabinets, in libraries, even in the ground, buried. But the electronic archive, well that requires a different type of archaeology, and it makes me wonder: will they care, those future beings? Will they wade through tons of data, finding out about us, understanding our relationships, our feelings, our existence?
It's unlikely that those big media conglomerates, Google and Meta – who are well on their way toward their mission to own us, heart and soul – will preserve our archives forever. Facebook allows you to ‘memorialise’ your account after you die, but there’s no word on how long your memory will be preserved there. Will they relegate us to the tides of history? Just as a journal or a letter crumbles with age and with time, does our digital archive break up in the ether?
This week, I’ve had to let go of a huge digital archive – the emails, the history, of over 12 years of work in my former role. The emails that documented the establishment of a company, its growth, its successes, its challenges and eventually, its transition to a new owner. This was a long journey, something that sits plumb in the middle of my life, and it was tied tightly to my sense of identity.
So far, letting go of the business has been a gradual process, with my heart oscillating between joy, fear, anticipation, relief. But the realisation that I must say goodbye to this big chunk of data feels like the last gasp. For weeks now I hadn’t even remembered it existed. But now that it’s going, I have to stop and give it pause.
It’s truly the end of the era. And it pulls any safety net that existed out from under this, my new life, where I work on a novel, I delight in building relationships with new clients, I take new directions, and I have all this glorious time to myself.
Those old emails, they’ll be wiped off my old laptop and then they’ll sit idle, unread, bundled up in a file on a server for a few years, after which time they’ll be retired, perhaps erased. Will I miss them? No, I won’t even notice. I will have moved on, well and truly, and they’ll fade away, leaving all but a few traces of bytes and pixels and small strands of memory that I’ll visit occasionally, if ever, as I keep moving forward, living my life.
Around the world there are institutes of digital archaeology. This is a field that uses technology to support its work in the physical world. For example, using 3D rendering to recreate historic monuments or artefacts.
So perhaps we can hold out hope that future generations of archaeologists will dig through all these pieces of data that make up our daily lives. Perhaps they can put them together as a whole.
And meanwhile, we’ll keep living, sending emails, liking posts, sharing spreadsheets, recording Zoom calls. And those, if ever found in the future, will most likely seem quaint.