Meditations on Erasing, Outsourced Memory, and The Second Self

What if you were to erase your digital past? All of it. Start fresh. Today.

All of those photos of past loves. All those documents of work from two jobs ago. All of that stuff you have been clinging on to that has no real impact or relevance today. The stuff you will likely never need again. What if you were to make the conscious choice to erase it in order to move yourself faster forward? Not because you need the space. Not so you can run around calling yourself “minimalist”. What if your reason for doing it was no more than being more focused on the present and more prepared for the future. A recent essay from Ev Bogue has had me meditating on just that.

The fact is, that technology is catching up in such a way that increasingly it will hold onto the past and those memories for us. Our Second Self 1, as Ev has coined it, will contain our memories so we don’t have to. We will be able to search for and access all of this stuff if we ever need it again. It will be out there. Especially if it matters. Do we really need it in the same physical and cognitive space as the things that are important and relevant today?

For instance, if I were to delete this site tomorrow, you could still find a lot of the content. Especially the important stuff. Google caches it. The Wayback Machine remembers it exactly as it was. Perhaps, even more fundamentally, the really important stuff has been retweeted, reblogged, taken to heart and put into practice, and all but lives on far beyond the words in this container. Would it be the end of the world if I erased it and started over?

Another example is Dropbox and CrashPlan. I put everything I can now, including all of my documents, into Dropbox. CrashPlan does incremental backups of my machine every 15 minutes. If I were to erase something from my system, it would not truly be gone. Both have the ability to restore deleted content. If I really needed something back I could find it and retrieve it. The technology has become my long term digital memory – keeping multiple copies and versions so that I can focus on the things that are important and relevant now.

Then there are the other things I’m letting my second self build and remember as I go. Any link I share on Twitter is remembered by my Pinboard. As is every item I read in Instapaper. Not to mention the many, many, things I send there manually. I don’t need to save that interesting link I read that may or may not be important to find later. I don’t need to keep it. If I read it I will be able to find it. My second self will remember. My primary self can therefore have more cognitive space and technological ability to work with what I need today.

My mind also turns to those who recently lost all of their email due to a GMail snafu. They opened up their email today and poof all of it is gone. On one level, I think about the consequence of trusting and outsourcing such memory and data to the technology, the cloud, the second self. The loss of control. The loss of things that really do matter today. On another level, I envy it. How nice might it be to start over and send out a message to all of my contacts letting them know what happened and to send their message again if it was important.

It causes me to challenge myself about the nature of control. Am I controlling the data? Is the data controlling me? Do we really ever have control over it in the first place? Is the loss of control frightening or, in some ways, cathartic? Does the true control and empowerment come from being able to take it or leave it? To erase?

Just a few of the things I’ve been meditating on lately and hopefully will spur some further thought for you as well.

  1. The ideas of Second Self and Augmented Humanity I find to be very interesting and important ones and Ev is a thought leader in this area. If you want to get a glimpse of where humanity is headed in the very present future, this is a must read. ↩