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.

[cross-posted at Feministe]

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4 Responses to The Impermanence of Light

  1. BB Allen July 21, 2010 at 12:47 pm #

    You seem to be in my head! I was thinking the EXACT same thing last night! The Romans used paper, and it's survived pretty well.

  2. Kelly July 21, 2010 at 6:29 pm #

    We leave a legacy with those we see and talk to and touch every day and that lives on at least as long as people live on. Sometimes we just don't think it "counts" as it doesn't seem as permanent as paper/stone tablets/internetz. I get a lot of emails and calls telling me I've touched people and helped people. It doesn't give me a sense of purpose or grandiosity or anything but it feels good.

    I liked this post and I too, despite my online life, enjoy periods of being "unplugged".

  3. Jerome July 23, 2010 at 1:11 am #

    Just commenting to say: Problematic since 2010! is the best tagline EVER!

  4. Dawn. July 26, 2010 at 2:55 pm #

    I've thought about/discussed this several times and my thoughts are nowhere near as touching or tidy. It does leave you cold when you sit with the idea of how impermanent our ways of expressing ourselves and archiving our art/lives/lifestyles are becoming. Print is definitely not dead, but it's different now. For example, love letters are e-mails and texts and Facebook messages. Journals are blogs and tumblrs and Twitters. It's an interesting time.

    I really like Kelly's comment, about how our legacy is with the people we talk to and touch every day. It reminds me that talking (in person) about things we read and love online is another important way of preserving/passing on "the intangible." And really, paper has its own expiration date. Nothing is truly permanent. Everything will become a story told from someone's memory of someone telling them a story.

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