You don’t have to prove that you were there, that it happened, that it mattered, because it doesn’t, because it isn’t worthy of record, because nothing is. You capture an instant of it, a series of seconds. You shoot it out into the ether. Some people see it. You’ll never know how it affected them. You’ll never think it matters.
Here is you laughing with a forty in your hand, or – when you’re younger and less concerned with appearances, or maybe more concerned with appearances but less skilled in managing them according to what’s likely to be well-received – a wine cooler. It’s probably the height of irony that you care about appearances when it will be gone in a matter of seconds, but we’re humans and this is what we do. Either way you don’t have to worry. You, half-clothed in the middle of a street glittering with shattered glass, waving your arms into the streetlights. You, making out with a stranger in a fit of ill-advised exuberance; who cares who’s doing the advising, anyway? No one says YOLO anymore, no one remembers what YOLO meant, but the concept applies.
You pick life apart one second at a time; it’s not a net or a book of records or a server farm full of bytes and bits but grains of sand that slip through yours and everyone’s fingers. You feel the texture of each one as it passes over your skin. Your nerves document each one in flashes of sensory input. Then it’s gone and you never miss it again.
There are several ways you can do this.
You can flash-capture, flash-send, and it’s gone when you send it, and it’s gone when they see it. These are moments of incredible intimacy, and to the degree that you’ve chosen someone to whom it matters at all, they devour the image or the words, they burn it into their memories, and then the object is gone but the memories might remain. I say might because we all know that memories are fickle, but they can also be startlingly robust.
You may be on your deathbed two thirds of a century later and out of nowhere you’ll remember when your boyfriend sent you a picture of his dick with a ribbon wrapped around it for your birthday and you’ll laugh and become wistful because it was actually a very sweet gesture at the time.
You’ll remember when that girl you spent one night with in San Francisco with wine and tears in the rain sent you, months later, the message that she loved you, and you know she never saw it again, and you never saw it again, and you never saw her again but it’s there. Somewhere. It’s hard to say.
Sometimes in the intervening years between when it happened and when it might make its final deathbed appearance you wish that someone somewhere kept it. Maybe someone somewhere did. Somehow.
You can send it out like you’re tossing rice at a wedding where you don’t care about anyone, especially not the people getting married. You can scatter it all over and deny that it matters at all. The second you hit post it’s gone from the thing you used to send it, and as soon as anyone sees it it’s gone from their feed. There are ways to counter this, there are apps and hacks, but no one does this in the kind of critical mass where anyone really cares. Everyone likes the freedom. Everyone likes not caring, and people don’t unless you force them to.
So feeds are full of fragments of close friends and strangers, little iridium flares of information, there for a few seconds and gone again. Watch your feed for long enough and get a sense of the quality of rushing flow, of Not Stopping. All the delineated moments of people’s lives and feelings and thoughts and creative expressions, all blended into a seamless running whole of a narrative. It’s dizzying. Some people sit and stare at it for hours. It’s all about forgetting. Maybe people want to forget themselves. Maybe people want the freedom to remember.
Destruction has always been a component of art, a running theme even in the fight against time and decay. Sometimes things double back and embrace it. In London a performance artist documents the first two years of the life of her first child in snippets of video that are gone seconds after they’re taken. It would be a bold statement about something or other except at this point no one thinks it’s strange.
No one thinks about the past anymore. No one focuses on ruins because everything’s in ruins all the time. The experience of time is the experience of ruin. You don’t have to look back. You also don’t have to look forward, if nothing right now lasts. It’ll all be gone. None of it matters except all of it does. Drink up. Someone else might get to it before you do and we can’t have that. But there’s more than enough for everyone and everyone’s guaranteed their share.
The thing is that someone probably is saving all of it. We talk about it now and then, and some of us are morbidly obsessed with it. Someone keeping everything else while the rest of us let it all go. Someone is tracking us, someone is marking the shadows of ourselves as we move through the world, as we grow up like pencil-height on a doorframe. Like a parent, except they probably aren’t proud of us. It’s hard to be proud of something that isn’t a person so much as a collection of data points.
So okay, yeah, that’s probably happening. But they aren’t going to pull up the aforementioned picture of the aforementioned forty being drunk when we have our first job interview after college, so who cares, really?
They just want to sell us things. Isn’t this correct? And most of us are looking to buy, or are at least so used to it by now that it barely registers.
The older generation likes to complain about this. They have hard drives and they look through them like old photo albums. They wax nostalgic and it’s sort of embarrassing. They show your friends baby photos – can you imagine, baby photos – and everyone is supposed to respond appropriately. But appropriate is changing. Like the generation before them, they’re getting stuck in the past, too rooted, and while they resist the current the rest of us are flowing downstream.
They talk about when people had to be careful, or at least told themselves and each other that they had to be, and everyone talked about everything that happened for days after the fact and life was an endlessly looping six seconds of disaster.
It sounds awful, frankly. We still have the loops but they vanish under the piles of other loops that are in a state of constant self-destruct. Screw it, don’t worry about it. Life is as it comes. Let them keep their bizarre simplistic ideas of privacy and their terror of forgetfulness as their brains begin to disintegrate.
Life without a trace seems possible. In our best moments we tell ourselves we might be free.
Sarah experiences life as bursts of characters on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry