A Large Byte of Your Life

Posted by Nishant Shah at Apr 03, 2016 03:00 PM |
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With the digital, memory becomes equated with storage. We commit to storage to free ourselves from remembering.

The article was published in Indian Express on April 3, 2016.


This is the story of a broken Kindle. A friend sent a message to a WhatsApp group that I belong to that she is mourning the loss of her second-generation Kindle, that she bought in 2012, and since then had been her regular companion. It is not the story of hardware malfunction or a device just giving up. Instead, it is a story of how quickly we forget the old technologies which were once new. The friend, on her Easter holiday, was visiting her sister, who has a six-year-old daughter.

This young one, a true digital native, living her life surrounded by smart screens, tablets, phones, and laptops, instinctively loves all digital devices and plays with them. In her wanderings through her aunt’s things, she came across the old Kindle — unsmart, without a touch interface, studded with keys, not connected to any WiFi, and rendered in greyscale. It was an unfamiliar device. But with all the assurance of somebody who can deal with digital devices, she took it in her hands to play with it.

Much to her dismay, none of the regular modes of operation worked. The old Kindle did not have a touch screen operated lock. It wasn’t responding to scroll, swipe and pinch. It had no voice command functions. As she continued to cajole it to come to life, it only stared at her, a lock on the digital interface, refusing to budge to the learned demands and commands of the new user. After about 20 minutes of trying to wake the Kindle up, she became frustrated with it and banged it harshly on the table, where it cracked, the screen blanked out and that was the end of the story.

Or rather, it is the beginning of one. As my friend registered the loss of her clunky, clumsy, heavy, non-intuitive Kindle, and messages of grief poured in, with the condolence that the new ones are so much better and the assurances that at least all her books are safe on the Amazon cloud, I see in this tale, the quest of newness that the digital always has to offer.

If it has missed your attention, the digital is always new. Our phones get discarded every few seasons, even as phone companies release new models every few months. Our operating systems are constantly sending us notifications that they need to be updated. Our apps operate in stealth mode, continuingly adding updates where bugs are fixed and features are added. Most of us wouldn’t know what to do if we were faced with a computer that doesn’t “heal”, “backup” or “restore” itself. If our lives were to be transferred back to dumb phones, or if we had to deal with devices that do not strive to learn and read us, it might lead to some severe anxiety.

The newness that the digital offers is also found in our socially mediated lives. Our digital memories are short-lived — relationships rise and fall in the span of days as location-based dating apps offer an infinite range of options to choose your customised partner; celebrities are made and unmade overnight as clicks lead to viral growth and then disappear to be replaced by the next new thing; communities find droves of subscribers, only to become a den of lurkers where nothing happens; must-have apps find themselves discarded as trends shift and new must-haves crop up overnight. Breathless, bountiful and boundless, the digital keeps us constantly running, just to be in the same place, always the same and yet, always new.

We would be hard pressed to remember that magical moment when we first discovered a digital object. For millennials, the digital is such a natural part of their native learning environments that they do not even register the first encounter or the subsequent shifts as they navigate across the connected world. Increasingly, we tune ourselves to the temporality and the acceleration of the digital, tailoring our memories to what is important, what is now, and what is immediately of use, excluding everything else and dropping it into digital storage, assured in our godlike capacities to archive everything.

This affordance of short digital memories is enabled partly by the fact that we are subject to information overload, but partly also to the fact that our machines can now remember, more accurately and more robustly than the paltry human, prone to error and forgetfulness. With the digital, memory becomes equated with storage, and the more we commit to storage, the more we free ourselves from the task of remembering.

The broken Kindle is a testimony not only to the ways in which we discard old devices but also our older forms of individual and collective memory — quickly doing away with information that is not of the now, that is not urgent, and that does not have immediate use value. My friend’s Kindle got replaced in two days. All her books were re-loaded and she was set to go. However, as she told me in a chat, she is not going to throw away her old broken Kindle. Because she wants to remember it — remember the joy of reading her favourite books on it. She is scared that if she throws it away, she might forget.

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