Photos, emails, playlists: our phones and computers have become hosts for our pasts. What happens when the backups fail?
Sarah Hagi, Marlowe Granados, Sloane Crosley and Sam WolfsonTue 28 Mar 2023 06.00 BST
No matter how much our computers assure us they’re backing everything up to a hard drive in the sky, memory failure remains a hardwired part of our lives. Writers reflect on when a digital loss created an emotional hole – from the college essay that disappeared minutes before the due date to an iPhone update that lost years of photographs.
Sarah Hagi: ‘I was the only historian of our short-lived universe and now it was lost for ever’
As with most millennials, my first email address was an embarrassing early gesture at signifying what was important, which to an 11-year-old me was the name of my pet hamster. That Hotmail address was primarily used to access Neopets and talk to friends on MSN Messenger.
It was through MSN that, at the age of 13, I met my first true friend.
I wasn’t without friends growing up, but my friendship with K was the first time I had felt a kinship deeper than anything I had experienced outside of my siblings. She was a schoolmate of a friend who had recently transferred from private school. K and I became fast friends. We talked constantly, we exchanged hundreds if not thousands of emails and we created our own world nobody else understood. In some of my first forms of public self expression, we created web pages that we found edgy and that our classmates found somewhat upsetting.
K was not healthy. Her life revolved around her illnesses that were a result of a rare form of cancer she had as an infant. Her mobility was limited and she was on more medication than I have seen to this day, something she dealt with through a sense of humour darker and more powerful than that of anyone I knew at school. I owe so much of my sense of self to her. It was through being friends with K that I began understanding the ways people adapt to life’s harsh circumstances, something that became clear when she got a heart transplant at the age of 13.
When K died, in our first year of university, I was alone in my mourning. At that point in our lives, she was extremely popular. We would email each other frequently about how nobody knew us the way we knew each other. I dealt with her death by turning inwards, never talking about it to anyone and being alone with a sadness I didn’t have the words to express. Years later, when I felt ready to revisit our shared past, I realized I couldn’t access my old Hotmail account where we shared our deepest pre-teen feelings.
I was distraught and consumed by guilt. I was the only historian of our short-lived universe and now it was lost for ever. But after experiencing a second type of mourning, I came to the understanding that it didn’t truly matter that these emails couldn’t be accessed.
I could have spent the last 15 years revisiting and rediscovering our shared past, believing that was the most important link I have to that period of my life. But I’ve never been one to tie too much meaning to any object either tangible or digital. I purge my apartment with very little thought to what I’m throwing out, much to the horror of many people I know. What remains of K’s digital footprint barely matters any more, because it never really did. I’m still innately drawn to anyone who reminds me of her and I still feel her influence on me even as I age. With or without those emails, my love for my friend has not been lost, even as specific details continue to fade.
Marlowe Granados: ‘My early 20s are trapped somewhere in the memory prison of an iPhone 4’
Up until I was about 20, I had been pursuing becoming a real photographer. My father gave me a camera when I was a child, and I stuck to using 35mm film throughout my teens. I would plaster my room with photos of my friends participating in underage debauchery, much to the chagrin of my mother (whose eyes narrowed whenever she glanced at the walls). I dabbled in showing prints at group shows and putting together photobooks, but over time photo developing shops became scarce, and the cost to continue was becoming exorbitant. Out of financial necessity and youthful indecision, my interests shifted; I dropped photography, moved on to writing and started exclusively taking photos on my iPhone.
I got my first iPhone in my first year at university in London, at around the same time as my best friends. It suddenly gave us access to a new era of documentation. We could get on to Instagram (which we’d heard so much about) and post photos directly to our Facebook feeds.
I lived in London for six years – some of the time in university and some of the time working several low-paying jobs at once. Halfway through my time, I was pickpocketed outside a club in Dalston. They took my phone and nothing else. The moment I realized it was gone, I knew that the faithful documentation of my life had disappeared. I did not believe in the virtues of backing up, or the cloud, or even plugging my phone into a laptop. I took the position that software updates were so Apple could slowly make your phone’s model obsolete (this was not entirely conspiratorial). Years of my time in London were suddenly erased.
I took a few days to grieve the loss and got upgraded to a new phone. By the weekend, as I was working my shift as a hostess at a hotel restaurant, someone lifted my new phone from the host stand, and, according to the “find my iPhone” tool, made their way to Whitechapel. I took it as a fateful sign that maybe this technology just wasn’t meant for me, a person who should not have anything of value on her person as it is vulnerable to being misplaced or stolen. At that moment I was out some money from the loss and trying to scrape together more to buy a third, lower-end model. This was a problem I could finagle my way out of. It never occurred to me that there might be a long-term consequence.
We underestimate how much our memory is couched and filled in by photographs. So much of my teenage years I can remember perfectly, with visual aid from physical photographs. As a writer, when I am in the process of taking inspiration from a memory, I often revisit photos of that era. A chronicle of outfits, scenery, or food can summon a specific atmosphere that might be fuzzy due to time or too many cocktails. As I look back on my 20s, there is a peculiar gap. I can hardly pinpoint a specific event from age 22 to 24, as though the years marbled and slipped out of mind. I’m certain that things happened to me. I’m the kind of person things happen to! But there was no distinct, crystalline structure for those memories because all this time I had been depending on photographs to furnish them. Those years of mine were trapped somewhere in east London, in the memory prison of an iPhone 4.
“When people rely on technology to remember something for them, they’re essentially outsourcing their memory,” Linda Henkel, a psychology professor at Fairfield University, explained on NPR. “They know their camera is capturing that moment for them, so they don’t pay full attention to it in a way that might help them remember.”
This isn’t the first claim that technological advances might decimate our memory. In Plato’s The Phaedrus, Socrates complains that the written word will ruin our ability to remember. Relying only on what was left on paper will leave us to become “tiresome company” when not exercising our actual memories.
I agree that we are a new kind of tiresome, but how much of that is our fault? In this age of information, I wonder what our capacity for stimulation might be. As someone who was a photographer and now a writer, I don’t know whether I have ever been able to keep a memory perfect, without shaving it down or shedding a few details along the way. The loss of those years to the digital sands of time is regrettable, but I have some faith that away from screens, the fog may lift.
Sloane Crosley: ‘I experienced abject panic at the loss of thousands of words and months of work’
You really haven’t lived until you’ve been on hold with a customer service representative long enough to take a shower. In 2009, I lost the first three chapters of a novel when my computer crashed. The immediate result of this was denial (surely, if I just pressed the right keys in the right order … ) followed by abject panic at the loss of thousands of words and months of work, followed by an epic call with someone from the computer company.
But was the book any good? I am the least qualified to say. And yet the only one who will ever be qualified to say. I know it was – or was meant to be – a post-apocalyptic comedy in which a mysterious woman shows up on the doorstep of a man who’s been living alone in an abandoned mansion. She falls in love with him but he refuses to sleep with her, even though she may be the last woman on Earth. It doesn’t sound so terrible, as I type it now, but everything is in the execution. And one of the first requirements for great literature is that it exist.
Over the course of four painful hours, during which only one of us was getting paid, a patient woman coached me through the resuscitation of my files while I bit my nails.
I took a shower during a planned absence, while she consulted a more tech-savvy colleague, keeping my phone perched on the far corner of the bathroom sink in case her voice broke through the hold music. I suppose things could have been worse. We could have been on the phone long enough for her to go home and take a shower.
When she got back on the line, I felt as if hope was in sight, my novel nearly brought back to life. She said, blasé as can be, “OK, now just copy your hard drive on to the disc.” I laughed and said “what disc?” My laptop didn’t have a disc drive. She’d presumed a different model. Then, as if this barely animated piece of hardware could hear the tone of my response, it crashed again. This time for good.
There were pieces of the novel on notepads and in Word documents I’d emailed to myself. My remedial version of “backing up”. But the story never congealed again in quite the same way. Not that I put a Herculean effort into it. I don’t suspect those chapters were headed somewhere spectacular.
The good news is that humor writing – or writing that is humorous, which is a different animal – is steeped in observation. Which means that some of that lost novel has appeared again over the years, in different guises, as I have moved through the world with my eyes open. There are several phrases or images from it, little cameos, in my new novel, Cult Classic. These are moments that seemed eerily familiar when I wrote them. It’s a gratifying feeling, akin to remembering one’s dream late in the day, even several days later. Which is itself a feeling akin to finding money in your pocket. It’s your money. Not more money. Not someone else’s money. But how exciting to finally have it back, to spend it any way you choose.
Sam Wolfson: ‘I opened up Apple Music and it was all gone’
I am exactly the kind of man who agonises over playlists. As a teenager, I read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, about a man who prioritises the order of a mixtape over tending to his relationships, and failed to understand that the character was supposed to be obsessive and pathetic. I thought I was embodying Rob’s cool, controlling vibe when, as a teenager, I would spend hours planning the music for a party, consider the guestlist and the mix of tastes, and then smoulder with nerd rage when someone would yank the aux cord to play some psytrance.
In adulthood, the playlists I made started to be less about other people and more about me – I would add to them painstakingly over many years. I found the perfect songs that could gently transport me from the frantic final emails of Friday afternoon to the first sip of alcohol on Friday evening, an emergency running playlist of non-stop nipple chafers for when my regular running playlist wasn’t motivating enough.
In the mix were songs that had changed my life. The ones that soundtracked blissful spring nights in the pandemic, when dancing round the kitchen was a full evening’s entertainment. Songs that filled up the newly acquired space after a miserable break-up when I had to get used to being alone more. I even had one playlist, “Songs to wake me from a coma”, of music that carries such great psychic weight (Lil Star by Kelis, Point of View by DB Boulevard, The Rat by The Walkmen) that I thought it might come in handy should I experience brain trauma.
Then, at the end of 2021, I moved from London to New York and everyone I met would say the same thing: “Can you Venmo me for that”, “I’ll pay the bill and just get me on Venmo”, “Just pay your rent on Venmo”. It turned out the country that houses Silicon Valley can’t work out how to do instant bank transfers. But to download Venmo, I had to change locations on the Apple App Store – no big deal. I clicked through all the warnings and terms and conditions without reading them and moved to a US account. Then I opened up Apple Music, and it was all gone.
It might not seem that big a deal, losing playlists. After all, the music is all still in the cloud. But despite many attempts I simply can’t remember all, or even most, of the songs that I had. It’s a strange kind of loss, these little pieces of autobiography, a decade in the making, lost to a glitch in the system.
I’ve tried to start again, finding homes for Fireboy DML next to Fontella Bass, Unknown T snuggled with Gerry Rafferty. But there’s no sense of history. My old playlists were refined and redrafted. Now they feel perfunctory, a contact sheet rather than a photo album.
The only upside is now, rarely, when I’m at a party or listening to the radio, I’ll hear one of the lost songs. It feels like the hand of heaven, a little part of myself that I can slot back into place. Which I suppose is quite a nice way to feel about overhearing 2007’s minor Groove Armada single Song 4 Mutya.