sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

it might not be a lot but I feel like I’m making the most

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 25, 2009

living and leaving with less

This is my last weekend in Boston. In a few days, I’ll be closing up shop, losing my internet access, piling some items into a truck, and heading to points midwest.

I’m not going to bother using this post to detail the emotional tumult inherent in this kind of move, because that feels lamely self-indulgent, even to someone who spends a huge chunk of her time broadcasting her thoughts on at least three different blog sites (here, here, and here). Besides, you’re probably reading this blog for one of two reasons: You know me and therefore care about my emotional state, but have received private updates; or you don’t know me and don’t particularly care how I’m feeling this morning.

Instead of tearing open my chest and splaying my guts across this post, then, I just want to focus on something interesting I’ve noticed while packing: It’s a whole lot easier to get rid of stuff than it was during my previous moves (of which there have been nearly two dozen in the last 14 years, including three major regional moves and multiple cross-town or cross-state relocations).

For one thing, I no longer need to carry with me certain types of materials. I’ve gotten rid of hundreds of books, including over a dozen dictionaries, thesauruses, and style guides. (I kept the dictionary I won as a spelling bee champion, but only for sentimental purposes.) I shredded and recycled reams of paper documents: tax returns, credit card bills, rental agreements and contracts. I don’t need them. They’re all online.

For another thing, we just don’t generate as much physical stuff as we used to. My friend and former coworker Debora Lui experienced a complete laptop failure–her second in a year–last summer as she was finishing her master’s thesis. While the first failure reduced her to working from “printed pages, (her) memory, or scattered hand-scribbled notes,” the second failure was a much different experience. She writes:

Miraculously – with all my Google Doc usage, emailing out, saving my information on remote sites – I found that I not only had one good copy of my thesis, but several copies, saved and transfered at different points of revision. I found that my other files like photographs and videos (which normally I would have been upset about losing) were also strangely distributed across the web through sites like YouTube and Facebook. While I had previously thought of my life as being contained in one place, it was suddenly shown to me as a vast network for links and uploads.

As Deb explains, we–and young people especially–collect and hold on to more everyday detritus than ever: More photos, more written communications, more logged and archived conversations. Yet because of digital technologies, the space this material takes up is so close to zero that it is, as Chris Anderson writes in Free, “too cheap to meter” and “too cheap to matter.”

Why not take a hundred photos of yourself posing in front of a full-length mirror? Why not save every email you ever received or sent from every single one of your friends? Eventually your gmail account may hit 5% of its total storage space, but it’s more likely that Google will increase storage capacity before you even hit that number.

My buddy Russell Francis, playing on Dorothy Holland’s notion of history in person, calls this phenomenon “history in laptop.” Summarizing a study he conducted of graduate students’ media habits, he writes that

Over time traces of students’ lives, past and present, become ingrained into students’ personal media environment through a process of inherited, evolved and mindful design. Archives of e-mails, letters, essays written as undergraduates, digitised photographs and digitised music collections also started to accumulate on many students’ laptops. Traces of Jacob’s participation in various environmental groups, traces of Jim’s participation in multiple human rights organisations and traces of Clinton’s long history of avid news reading were evident in the links, shortcuts and contacts designed into their personalised mediascapes. Furthermore, traces of their connections to others accumulated as entries in contacts folders and instant messenger ‘buddy lists’; tools that allowed students to remain in touch with former lives and former practised identities.

The point is well taken, though the term itself seems a bit of a red herring. The term seems to imply a history that’s located in a concrete place, albeit one that uses space in a way that’s much different than, for example, books and letters and mementos do. In fact, history in laptop may be a more accurate term for how identity was stored as recently (and as long ago) as 3-5 years ago; today, history is stored across a virtual space no longer constrained by such silly contraptions as hard drives and memory cards. If my computer crashes, I’m likely to retrieve nearly all of the data that was stored on it–okay, let’s say somewhere around 80%. Still, that’s an awful lot to retrieve, given that history that resides in the brain is gone as soon as the blood flow is cut off.

Anyway, my point is that I carry around less stuff, and the less will get lesser with every passing year. Interestingly, this makes it easier to drift physically but harder to drift emotionally. We can, and often do, maintain the types of everyday connections with family, friends, and acquaintances that at least approximate the experience of physical promixity. My sister can send me a photo of her wardrobe choice for her first day of law school; we can chat online about which shoes she should wear, where she should buy her books, and how heavy her backpack is. I can follow her blog, her Facebook updates, and her tweets, and she can do the same for me. And, more importantly, all of these things are equally possible for me to do with, for example, the cluster of people I met at a recent conference, whether they live in Boston, Bloomington, or Cape Town.

For now, let’s call it “history at large.”

One Response to “it might not be a lot but I feel like I’m making the most”

  1. Laura said

    You touched on the fact that some connections are not digital. You and your sister (hi; I'm the sister) may be able to chat online but we won't be sharing the same couch, with a cat between us, watching the same episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Will anyone ever invent a method by which a Bloomington resident can watch the same dvd as a Beantown resident AT THE SAME TIME?). It seems that some forms of virtual sharing create the illusion that people can be together even when they're separate. That's why the emotional drifting is so wrenching.

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