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.