You Can Delete, but You Can't Forget

I erased all of my mother's emails after she died. I want them back.

The morning after I found out that my mother had died, I did something that I still don’t entirely understand: I searched through my Gmail inbox for all of her emails and deleted every one. I erased her, or that’s what it felt like, and I know that’s what I wanted, because I remember very clearly that instead of just clicking “empty trash,” I selected them all so that I could click the button that said “Delete forever.” This was seven years ago.

For a long time I didn’t even think about the emails, much less miss them. There was a lot I didn’t want to remember about my mother, which is probably why I found comfort and even pleasure in “Delete forever.” Goodbye to all that.

Of course, I should have waited. But grief sometimes makes us do stupid things with deep conviction. The decisions we make in that state are operatic. Life seems to take on outsize proportions. We’re feeling the biggest or deepest or most acute feelings, and, howling, we act them out with gestures big enough to see from the cheap seats. Right then I felt like I wanted to erase her. And so I did. It took me years to realize that what I'd also erased was a piece of her voice and that I might someday want it back.

* * *

Lately I’ve wondered, both idly and with real longing, whether I could ever get any of my mom’s emails back. What I discovered isn’t as simple as a yes or no, and it reveals something about how profoundly our hope for and fear of the digital forever has altered our most elemental ways of grieving and of understanding loss.

Google declined to comment for this story, but I asked Steve Atkins, a software developer specializing in email infrastructures, whether it would ever be possible to get those messages back. No, he says: “If you have sent an email and you have accidentally deleted it, unless the person you’ve sent it to has a copy, you’re never going to get it back.” It’s not necessarily because parts of the data aren’t there, but because of the way that email systems are built: archival storage of system backups and historical data aren’t a priority for commercial companies. Atkins explained to me that the user experience of opening an inbox and deleting an email isn’t representative of what actually happens on the server side. When you delete an email, Atkins says, what you’re really doing is flagging it for future deletion. It’s still on the server, though, “if the [email] client asks about mail, the server will say no, there’s no mail,” and it won’t appear in your inbox. But it will still be there, he says. And it may sit there for a while, probably for hours or even days, until your mailbox is expunged, a process in which the server creates a copy of your mailbox without the deleted messages, and then physically overwrites the original. That’s when it’s truly gone.

Expunged data  “actually does not exist anywhere” anymore—not as anything that would be legible, anyway. Big email services like the ones Google and Yahoo and MSN provide keep backups of server data, but usually only “for them to recover if something goes terribly wrong,” Atkins says. While Atkins is not connected to Google, a lot of information about their operations is public: the company has published hundreds of research papers about data management, software, and systems architecture. He guesses that Google’s backups probably stick around for a few weeks before they, too, are expunged.

In another way, though, those deleted emails do survive, though—or, at least, the data that Google has extracted from them in order to build your user profile has. Atkins suspects that  even after a message has been deleted, “it’s possible somebody smart” could use the extracted user profile data to piece together what you’d been writing about. That’s unlikely, he says. And even if they did, what they could reconstruct wouldn't actually be the message, just its traces—they would only know it was an email about a particular topic.

But my mother’s words without her voice (such as it is) are just static. I can’t recover her recipes or her enthusiasm for the things she loved. Every time I get served an ad for a fawning book about the Founding Fathers or for a deviled egg tray, it’s a kind of tiny haunting: a palimpsest of what once was, stripped of what made it really meaningful. And those tiny traces may be the problem—not because they can’t allow us to recover the things we’ve lost, but because they allow us to believe that we can. When we hear that data lives forever on the internet, it’s hard to understand that it’s sometimes more like garbage that won’t biodegrade than it is a reconstructible fragment.

After all, this really isn’t a new problem. Storage media, whether on paper or in pixels, are frail and fallible. It was certainly easier, faster, and consequently more reckless for me to delete all of my mom’s email than it would have been to find and destroy every note she'd ever written, but the loss is ultimately the same. Forgetting to pay the bill on the storage unit where I’ve got boxes of family photos and memorabilia stuffed might lack the symbolic richness of hitting a button that says "Delete forever" but it wouldn’t be all that different from a server expunging emails I flagged a few weeks before. It just feels different.

As terrified as we might be of the prospect that the stuff we put online will, like cockroaches, outlive us all, there’s also a longing that maybe digital storage means we’ll never have to lose anything again. In some ways, the fantasy of perpetually recoverable data plays an important social role, says Evan Meaney, an assistant professor of media arts at the University of South Carolina whose research and artistic practices explore ghosts, glitches, and what he calls “archival hauntology.”

The idea of the Internet as a place of no forgetting might be our contemporary, “secular understanding of continuation,” Meaney says, one that’s exemplified by his video project Big_Sleep. While working with computer scientists and engineers at the National Institute for Computational Sciences (NICS) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee,  Meaney and his collaborator, Amy Szczepanski, wrote a program they called Decasia.PY that perfectly preserves digital files, keeping their encoding intact at high resolutions. The name is a reference—as well as a response—to Bill Morrison’s 2002 film Decasia, which uses found footage to document the decay of nitrate film. Decasia.PY stores digital files in an archival vault codec, which preserves their encoding at high resolutions. But, the catch is, once the files are preserved, “you can never open or view the content again.” The data will always be there, but inaccessible.

So while the fantasy of perpetually recoverable data conceivably plays an important societal function, it can also make it harder to grapple with loss. “Digital things cannot give you closure,” says Meaney. You might someday regret burning your ex’s photos, but you’ll never hold out the hope that the photos are somehow recoverable, because there can be no doubt that they were destroyed: you saw the pile of ashes. That’s essentially what’s left of all that email I deleted, but the possibility of permanence—the nagging sense that my mom’s words might be out there in a hidden cache somewhere—actually makes it harder to grieve that loss.

Meaney’s right. Faith in the permanence of data can’t do what I need it to, not really. I don’t want the data: an archival vault codec of her emails wouldn’t satisfy me. I think I want the artifact, the note to read and reread. This is the same emotion that drives us to save so many things we never return to. But the artifact—a file, a photo, a memory—is always already in danger of destruction and has never truly been able to keep keep us from our grief. We mourn the loss, one way or another.

I don’t want data. I never did. What I really want is my mother, who, for better or for worse, doesn’t live on in anything I can hold. This is where my mother would make a joke about cuneiform tablets, I think, but I can’t remember how it goes. It got overwritten—in my brain, on the server—with some other story entirely.