The Impermanence of Light

Tonight I did something I do less and less of these days — I came home and didn’t jump on the Internet. Didn’t rush through my meal to hurry up and check my e-mail only to be inundated with the day’s nauseating blog comments. Didn’t skip reading the book I’m almost finished with to see what’s going on with Twitter. Just fed the animals, changed, ate my dinner, watched Louie, and then sat down in the new dorm-room style circle chair I bought on sale at Target with said book I’m almost finished with.

I don’t want to go all Calculon on you by saying I was filled with a large number of powerful emotions, but I actually was. I was unplugged and I could hear myself thinking without the background noise of the fan keeping my laptop from burning my palms as I type. I thought about how my whole life is in light; fiber optics transmitting my thoughts to people I’ll probably never meet, silicon holding my words only to be revealed by the tickle of electricity sent to circuits triggered by the touch of my finger to a button. Where do my words go when I’m gone? The frantic pace of the Internet makes me feel that if I don’t check in every few hours, or every day, or every other day, all memory of me will vanish. Do people read my blog archives? Or do they simply absorb the missive I’ve sent for the day, then dash off to some other blog, where they’ll read something else that scoots my words out of the way to implant themselves in their place? If I didn’t post for a month, would you remember who I was? All you know of me is light. My picture appears to you in pixels and photons, but you don’t know the flesh behind them. And this is true for all of us who inhabit this world, who put their words out for consumption in blog form or comment form or tweet form or e-mail form. When we’re all gone, — all of us, including you — what will be left of us to know?

I’m a realist, I don’t expect our current mode of civilization to last for a thousand years or even a hundred years if we keep doing what we’re doing with no major modifications. When the time comes that there are no more working DVD players to play our DVDs, when our infrastructure is so dilapidated that we can’t access what’s left of the Internet, when there’s no electricity being generated to power our communications towers and our orbiting satellites come crashing to Earth from lack of maintenance, how will we remember what we are? How will whatever civilization rises after us, comprised of whatever beings have replaced us, know who we were? Civilizations we consider ancient today used decidedly more low tech materials to share their information, and we can pore over them today. We only need other low tech writings to teach us how to interpret the strange symbols their society used to communicate. I can’t even begin to figure out what a shiny CD has on it without benefit of fancy technology that, in our future as it stands to become now, will no longer exist. I can’t take out my laptop’s hard drive and flip through the circuits to find that short story I wrote 2 years ago. I can’t tell you one damn thing about what’s on that drive except through the low tech method of retelling memories — what I can remember about what I had on there. It’s kind of frightening to me, this impermanence. It feels like the knowledge about this golden age of history is a mere electromagnetic pulse away from becoming nothingness. I know, I know, I’m getting all existential up in this piece. But if you sit with it, it leaves you cold.

That’s why I’m obsessed with notebooks and pens and paper and books, why I’m putting together an anthology telling stories of women of color on paper, why I’m not too keen on e-books and I still buy CDs — hey, at least the liner notes and lyrics will still be readable. I don’t advocate some kind of neo-Luddite existence. I don’t think we need to start carving stone tablets. Just write some. Papryus is still around, I have hope that archival quality, acid-free paper will be too. Write your memories, journal daily, write your speculative autobiography. Write your parents’ or your significant other’s biographies. Leave your story for the climate refugees of the 2100s to read. Go out with your friends and tell each other your stories and write those down. Don’t let the only ones remembered be the ones lucky enough to get their words in print before the clock runs out.

Now excuse me while I go finish reading that book I’m almost finished with.

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28 comments for “The Impermanence of Light

  1. July 21, 2010 at 6:09 am

    I realize that I have been on my blog for way too long when I start having second thoughts on the motiff that I chosen for it. When I get indecision I should just walk away and leave it alone. It’s nice to be able to get up and start reading. I am a Pagan (not mention feminist) so books are important that and actually practicing my religion and not being online!

  2. July 21, 2010 at 7:36 am

    I don’t have the internet at home this summer, which I am finding…surprisingly tolerable, really. Though I’m hardly ever at home.

    I like reading, a lot. And I find when I’ve got readily available internet access, my reading tends to suffer a bit, which is unfortunate. Lately I’ve had two or three days where I made a conscious decision to stay away from Twitter and Tumblr for the day, and it’s astonishing how good I felt about that.

  3. Meredith
    July 21, 2010 at 10:28 am

    This is why, someday when I am no longer super concerned about my privacy (I’m hoping to land a job in two years when I graduate from law school), I am going to unlock my Twitter again so that the Library of Congress can archive it. At least there will be that small part of me. I also now feel the need to laser-print my stories and thoughts onto acid-free paper. And, I think this explains why I refuse to buy a Kindle or Nook or whatever, because I like the feel and the permanence of books.

  4. William
    July 21, 2010 at 10:44 am

    We like to imagine the end of the world as we know it, we like to think about what happens when it all comes tumbling down. What we seldom realize is that these fantasies are firmly rooted in our privilege. Our privilege to imagine, our privilege to forget our history, our privilege to be not desperate and seeking but afraid and waiting.

    Once upon a time wolves were a real threat. Once upon a time Europe had bandits. Once upon a time you needed 10 children to have a shot at a few surviving and maximize your chances of actually growing enough food on your land to survive. Once upon a time plagues rampaged through our societies not because drugs were scarce but because we didn’t know what they were. Once upon a time starvation was a hard threat imposed by nature, rather than one imposed largely by distribution. Once upon a time a thousand miles was a long way. Once upon a time chemistry was alchemy and anatomy was blasphemy. Once upon a time we spoke of humors and phlogiston and wrote “here there be monsters” on maps. Once upon a time we didn’t have the written word, or fire, or crops, or domesticated animals and we shook with fear when we heard thunder because we worried it might devour us.

    Its always been a bad wager to bet against the human race. Even the fall of Rome and a Church enforced dark “age” lasted only a short time in the lifespan of a race and was largely confined to Europe while the rest of the world continued to grow and overcome. Yet we still like to imagine, like virtually everyone before us, that we’re on the edge of destruction. We imagine that mother nature or father state is going to make it all come crashing down because it is freeing. How can one person stand up to forces like that? How can one person effect so big a thing? Its not our fault, you see? And so we defuse the anxiety we feel, we make it someone else’s problem, we paint ourselves as victims and give ourselves an excuse not to live up to our heritage as creators and problem solvers. If it isn’t our fault and theres nothing we can do (other than change how we think so the end won’t be quite so bad) then we don’t have to actually do anything.

    That, right there, is a privilege. Some of us have the luxury of sitting back, wringing our hands, and plodding on. Like George the Lesser with a nose full of coke and a legacy’s admission to Yale we can coast and just get by. We can talk about Armageddon, safe and secure in the knowledge that we won’t see it, we won’t feel it, and thus we don’t have to do anything to stop it. We make ourselves feel less lazy by saying theres nothing we could do to stop it, but the whole of human history makes that a thin defense.

  5. Kate
    July 21, 2010 at 11:04 am

    William: The OP didn’t say anything about Armageddon. In fact she mentioned the potential civilisation(s) to follow ours. Even you were basically writing about how our societies change, so what on earth is your point? The ability of our industrialised cultures to pass on knowledge in the commonly used digital form is a real concern not just some imaginary problem plucked from the air. Of course, it’s possible our knowledge won’t be useful to anyone in a culture radically different from ours but that doesn’t seem to be what you’re trying to get at. We have the privilege to worry about something less immediately threatening than what worries someone else; so what? Should we just pretend it doesn’t matter to us or anyone else because it’s not going to eat us?

  6. July 21, 2010 at 11:39 am

    I really didn’t read this as an “afraid and waiting” piece. More just a piece about the importance of not being utterly reliant on technology for thought recording, socializing, and communication. I’m not sure what you were trying to get across William. A long rant about human progress and how cool we all are now… It sounds like your pissed the author is so selfish as to think that they might live during a time of turbulence. But also pissed she’s thinking about it without doing something. Though you never define what to do to not be lazy. Sounds like you’re pretty privileged too. And a tad self absorbed.

    I’m paranoid. I come from a long line of paranoid people. This is probably because we live on ranches and in the boonies and have to deal with weather, erosion, wild life, and nature trying to reclaim what we now consider ours. Whenever I get hooked on the internet I end up depressed. Living away from it for a year has been a blessing, even if it means living without basic comforts and utilities now and then. I get more done, I learn more, and I care less about what nameless people made of light on a screen think. I do however care more about renewable energies and how to feed injured wildlife.
    I watched my ex go from a communist who wanted to make the world a better place to a bourgeoisie, computer obsessed, robot-christ wannabe whos only sense of relationships is online. I never want to become that into my facebook.

    Anyway. Beautifully written piece with perfect word choice about a refreshing and important topic. Well done.

  7. July 21, 2010 at 11:52 am

    William, what are you talking about? I wasn’t even delving into those topics. Did I say I was anxious.. ah, fuck it, I don’t even care.

  8. Brennan
    July 21, 2010 at 11:54 am

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. I’m reminded of the discussions we had at the end of my photography class about the impermanence of digital art. The professor warned us to keep track of our images because technology advances and becomes obsolete much faster than we realize. Dyes run on CD’s and DVD’s, ink fades on paper, the interface for even the most reliable electronic device will be hard to come by in as little as ten years. Apparently, it’s been a real problem for museums trying to document the last century; without careful data transfers every five or ten years, many digital documents are just lost.

    I’m not sure what the solution is, but it’s an important thing to keep in mind. We sometimes like to say that Google is forever, but it wasn’t around twenty years ago and might be gone twenty years from now. So much of what we think is eternal just isn’t.

  9. syndella
    July 21, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Beautifully said, William. I find your piece more evocative of realism than the OP.

  10. July 21, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    “We can talk about Armageddon, safe and secure in the knowledge that we won’t see it, we won’t feel it, and thus we don’t have to do anything to stop it.”


    Ordinarily I agree with much of what you say, but I found your entire comment condescending as hell. For one thing, the OP said nothing about Armageddon, for heaven’s sake. And, yes, she is correct that one day there is a very real possibility that all of the technology we take for granted might be gone.

    I’d also like to know exactly how you know that Armageddon will not occur in our time. Are you God or some other omnipotent being? Do you have a direct line of knowledge that the rest of us do not have?

    And, for the love of all that is holy, worrying about the end of the world or mass destruction is not a privilege. It’s scary. It’s horrifying. And no matter how much or how little you might have it is a fear that many people have. It is, in fact, in my experience some of the -poorest- people who worry the most about the end of the world – or the world as we know it – not the other way around.

  11. July 21, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    I wasn’t even thinking about the “end of the world”, more like a migration to a different kind of world, one in which the technology we have today wouldn’t be around, rendering our digital methods of information storage useless. Where people got “Armageddon” out of that, I don’t know. Armageddon is a religious term. I’m an atheist, albeit a hopeful one. I was speculating on the fate of information, not particularly the overarching fate of the existence of the world as we know it. I was not trying to convey anxiety about such, and how do you know what I’m doing to attempt to change the course we’re on, which is most definitely towards a much different present than we’re in now?

    If you want to talk about hand-wringing over Armageddon, post it on your own blog instead of cluttering up my comment thread with irrelevance. Thanks.

  12. badhedgehog
    July 21, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    Reverse engineering old formats and getting them onto new formats to be readable by new technology or emulating old computing environments can be a colossal pain in the backside.

    When I was a kid, our school took part in this this. We collected data, which the project organisers stored on Philips Laserdisc. The project software was written in a language that never quite took off in the way that had been hoped. Read the wikipedia link – it summarises the issues very well, and I don’t want to go just copying and pasting the whole article.

  13. Q Grrl
    July 21, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    “It’s kind of frightening to me, this impermanence. It feels like the knowledge about this golden age of history is a mere electromagnetic pulse away from becoming nothingness. I know, I know, I’m getting all existential up in this piece. But if you sit with it, it leaves you cold.”

    Why should it leave you cold? Are you afraid that if the technology that records your thoughts goes *poof* your existence will have been meaningless?

    [not trying to sound snarky, just asking for clarification]

  14. July 21, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    @Q Grrl,
    I interpreted that statement as to mean kind of that, though not as extreme as your/my existence being meaningless. Rather, we (society) learn and judge history and the people in it by documents that record what happened and what people thought. If something happened, and all information that was stored digitally was gone…what would happen? Future generations wouldn’t have the information they need and deserve about their past and their ancestors. And, yes, in a kind of existential way, if our minds are made up of our memories and thoughts and ideas, and all of those things are stored on a digital piece of hardware, and there is some point in the future where that is inaccessible…then it is kind of like we never existed. Because our ideas and the things we wrote down, the things we thought were important enough to store, are now gone.

  15. July 21, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    What Xeginy said. It’s not so much that my existence will be meaningless, because I don’t ascribe meaning to a life based on what is recorded of it.

  16. July 21, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    This is such an important issue; thank you for writing about it (and in such an eloquent way!). I’m about to start library school, and making sure that digital texts are still readable in the far future is a very big issue that librarians are wrestling with.

  17. July 21, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    I’ve pondered this before. I spend more time off of the internet. I’m currently immersed in a series of books. I keep a pen and ink journal which includes drawings along with it. I actually find it easier to express myself with a pen and paper, since there’s no font restrictions or word processing limitations. I get all of the colors and space I want to express what I am feeling.

    It seems that having a physical piece of paper and pen feels more tangible, more “real” to me. I find that I remember things more easily if I actually take the physical effort of writing something down rather than typing it.

  18. July 21, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    Agreed. There’s something sacred feeling about opening a book.

  19. July 21, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    This code isn’t even 30 years old and it was a challenge to unlock it. You’re right to think about what will happen with technology. Even if nothing bad does happen to our civilization, the technology itself becomes obsolete.

  20. July 21, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    I used to read all the time. Then I got hooked n blogs, so I took my reading to my lunch breaks at work and the bus ride to and from work. Then I got a fancy new smartphone, which seems to take up my bus time and breaks. This is depressing. Thankfully, I am really, really into this book I just got, No god but God by Reza Aslan (highly recommended if you haven’t read it), which has seemed to get me back into reading. I’m trying to limit my “laptop time” as much as I can so as not to get sucked in these days. I remember Jessica Valenti writing about how she and her husband have a rule where they turn off their computers at 7 or 8 or something, and it’s mandatory. I am thinking of enforcing a similar rule on myself.

    Great post, I relate a great deal…

  21. July 22, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Kudos to William, for pretty much stating something I’ve been feeling for a long time (I especially liked the part about having a responsibility to carry culture further, rather than panicking and blaming The Future). Tasha, this may not be the disaster porn that he’s getting at, but it still raised those hackles.

    When you deal with disability, off-the-grid-type stuff is totally grating. Plus, why does it have to be a guilt trip? Me, I’ve basically lost my ability to write/compose longhand. (This can mostly be blamed on a freaky-weird medical problem, but my heavy computer use contributes.) I also just got a Kindle, which I had misgivings about, but I fricking love it so far. I may have ultimately been had, but if I’m enjoying my books now, I don’t see the problem. And oddly enough, I don’t really trust information on paper. It’s only in ONE PLACE, who knows what could happen to it? There’s always something that stands to take away the things we love, and I’ve both benefited and lost because I’ve been risk-averse.

  22. July 22, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Sara, I realize that people are used to reading things as a lecture, but I wasn’t trying to force anyone to do anything or guiit anyone over not writing on paper. In fact, I write on paper only rarely now because I have repetitive stress disorder and my hand starts to hurt unless I stop every few minutes. I wish I could write more. For myself, I do try to journal when I can, just to have something out there. Although I don’t write articles on paper as much as I like, I am still obsessed with pens and notebooks etc. just because. And I’m not trying to say that if you buy a piece of technology like a Kindle you’ve been had. I made a living working on computers for some time, I’m not averse to technology nor do I advocate living off the grid.

    Basically these are my ponderings while I was sitting in a dish chair, not an edict, more like a suggestion if that.

  23. July 22, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    As someone who also has a disability, I couldn’t survive completely without modern technology either, so yeah, no off the grid for me.

  24. Amphigorey
    July 22, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Are you familiar with the Clock of the Long Now project? It’s meant to encourage people to think long-term.

  25. john
    July 22, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    Good article.
    This is why musicians must always record to vinyl, Or else the 80s could be last era of music a post apocalyptic future might ever hear. (Actually that might not be such a bad thing, no offense to any musicians today.) The good news is many more bands are releasing on vinyl these days than compared to the 90s or even early 2000s, especially the extremely way out in their own musical universe bands.

    Soon we maynot have to worry as nanotube memory is said to be able to last millions (literally millions) of years. IF WW3 can hold out until this technology becomes affordable, then we are in the clear for all data storage.

  26. Erika
    July 22, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this update. I feel this way all the time in regard to how “plugged-in” we always are, especially as a generation. I just finished reading White Noise so the topic is that much more strongly running through my head. Once again though, awesome commentary.

  27. July 22, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    I keep a paper diary, which I love but need to write in more often– I really enjoy reading old entries and seeing how I’ve grown and changed, and thinking about passing it on to my hypothetical future granddaughter.

    But I also love the internet– my journal is personal and private, but the internet allows me to communicate, get new ideas, and talk to people. They have very different benefits.

  28. July 22, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    Oooh, I agree. My career is dependent upon a lot of digital technology, and I spent a lot of time and money in school learning about it. Also, to take it to a bit of an extreme, my husband is type 1 diabetic, life would be a lot more difficult without his tester.

    The means to make music and create art is much more readily available to so many more people because of digital technolgy, some see that as bad, some see it as good, depending on their personal preferences. Different means and media create different forms of art and expression and communication. There’s a program called Intuos that replicates a canvas with almost all forms of media possible, it’s started an entire new form of art. Although, I feel that if need be, cassette tapes still record and copier machines still make color copies, so if we’re hung up on having something solid, something we can frame on our wall or play in our retro home stereo system, then we still have the means to transfer it.

    For me, it’s nice to step away from the lightbulb I’ve been staring into for so long, get some sunshine, smell the pages of a book, and watch the ink run the “wrong” way on a drawing. I believe, like most things, it just comes down to personal preference.

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