Human life is full of little ironies. For example, one hot area for collectors is ephemera, things we produce that aren’t meant to last, like calendars, tickets, magazines, and posters. Because these things are meant to be used and thrown away, what survives becomes valuable. Usually these items are paper, but they can also include bits of film or video or even advertising items, like plastic whistles or the metal “cricket” clickers given away with Pol Parrot shoes when I was a little kid.
Another irony that fascinates me is The Cloud and other amorphous computer storage places. If you have a smart phone, at some point you’ve probably thought or said that it contains “my life,” like your mother’s phone number, your grocery list, the date of your next dentist appointment, fitness records, email, texts, and a dozen apps that keep you entertained. If you’re like me, you shiver with dread at the thought of losing or dropping it. For that reason, you may “sync” your phone with your home computer or back up the information on The Cloud. In fact, you may back up all your computer data on The Cloud. Our treasured electronic devices are fallible, after all.
Ironically, The Cloud is, itself, merely an electronic device, an array of computer servers somewhere, consisting of diodes and circuit boards, with wires hanging off the back. Although the industry depends on redundancy to keep running, all the machinery is merely machinery and just as susceptible to flood, fire, insect infestations, human error, and natural and man-made disasters. It is all also susceptible to business failures and power outages that can be permanent. Even though we intend to keep the details of our lives, the medium in which we keep them is by its nature ephemeral.
Perhaps, in the cosmic view of things, this transition from paper records to ephemeral electricity is a good thing. All life is transitory. After all, human history and the brief lives of mayflies (genus Ephemera) are different only in matters of scale. In one sense, humanity has been preparing to disappear for millennia. We’ve gone from writing on stone and clay tablets to writing on paper and now to zeroes and ones in the wiring of big black boxes. No new iteration of humanity or potential intelligent species is going to stumble upon our banks of computers a thousand years from now and devote years of scholarship to deciphering what is written there, because nothing is written there. It is encoded and requires wiring that lasts a thousand years plus knowledge of specific electronic manipulation to even be available for decoding.
But we don’t have to wait for a thousand years for bits of the future-past to disappear. While we might feel blushing amazement still to find and read the love letters grandpa and grandma wrote 60 years ago, the love notes we might write on email or the limited characters of Twitter have already disappeared, never to be seen by wondering grandchildren decades from now.
Maybe it doesn’t matter, because our grandchildren’s Internet-influenced attention spans will be shot to heck anyway.