In each of the least reachable corners of my house, I have boxes, each of them full of things I never need, use, want, or have much desire to look at: photos, tapes, unmarked CD-Rs, unreadable Zip discs, DAT cassettes, memo pads, term papers, medical forms and copies of medical forms. The boxes themselves are caving in after years of getting jammed into different corners. Just the idea of going through them makes me sneeze, as though nostalgia was just an allergy I live with.
I’d say something column-y like “Am I holding onto this stuff or is it holding onto me?” if it weren’t actually just a standard-issue hoarding habit proudly and literally handed down through generations of my family. (The last time I went home I was reunited with a board game that I made in first grade and a folder of report cards from junior high.) The boxes could seriously be filled with smaller boxes — and some are — and it wouldn’t matter. I don’t need what’s inside of them. (But what if I do?!)
No, if it were nostalgia alone that enforced this absurd accumulation of the past, I’d have the same difficulty dragging the digital version of my life to the trash. And I have no such thing.
Like many other people who spend a disproportionate amount of time attached to the Internet, the value I assign to information has skyrocketed, even as the value I attach to hanging onto it has bottomed out. I routinely execute mass deletions of unread e-mails, unopened folders, spent casings of old .zip files, unseen stacks of random .jpegs and .gifs. Drag, drop, delete — who cares?
Part of this is that the rise of cloud storage, streaming media, and ephemeral chat has predisposed us to dispose, and keep our memory free by eschewing memories. Another part of it is the nature of the social media that delivers our information — a ceaseless conveyor of treats and traps that glides past whether you’re watching or not. Where does all that content go? Again, who cares?
But another part of it is that the Internet has no unreachable corners, no back shelves or basement closets. The display of one’s hoard of information used to scan as something of a static status symbol: a full bookcase, a wall of records, a mantel of family photos. These days, information feels more like a liability. Nostalgia more like evidence. A snapshot more like Exhibit A.
Take Exhibit A, director James Gunn, who was recently and controversially fired by Disney for a series of offensive tweets made in 2008, and recently unearthed by the Papa John of #pizzagate, Mike Cernovich. Gunn’s firing seems to have inspired other mass deletions: “Saturday Night Live” cast member Pete Davidson drew more eyes by wiping his Instagram clean this week than if he’d just let it sit there smirking (“I just don’t wanna be on Instagram anymore,” he put in his Instagram story. “Or any social media platform. The internet is an evil place and it doesn’t make me feel good”).
“Star Wars” director Rian Johnson this week deleted more than 20,000 old tweets. “No official directive at all,” Johnson replied to a tweet by feminist site The Mary Sue questioning the move, “and I don’t think I’ve ever tweeted anything that bad. But it’s nine years of stuff written largely off the cuff as ephemera, if trolls scrutinizing it for ammunition is the new normal, this seems like a ‘why not?’ move.”
Just this week, Miley Cyrus deleted her entire Instagram history, presumably to make way for whoever the new Miley is.
With the existence of cacheing sites and the popularity of stubbornly permanent records like the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, it’s hard not to see these sweeping public deletions as purely gestural. When it comes to shaping the way others see us online, deleting may be as potent as posting.
And while these celebrity examples may seem the stuff of fluff — powerful men seemingly covering their keisters or pop stars doing some exterior decorating — they speak to how disposable we’ve made our digital selves. It may seem like frivolous image-sculpting — and it can be.
But scale this throwaway perception of the past up to places of power, and it becomes a major structural risk.
When the US Department of Health and Human Services suddenly announces the deletion of a massive database of medical guidelines (or simply doesn’t announce the deletion of information on gender discrimination from its website), or when government records giving “family identification numbers” to migrant families separated at the border are reportedly deleted, or when cabinet officials are caught deleting sketchy meetings from public calendars, or when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention removes the words “climate change” from materials, or when the White House removes entire questions from both transcript and video footage of a press conference, or even when (and yes, I’m doing this to avoid 30,000 angry e-mails) a candidate deletes 30,000 e-mails (happy?!), the ease with which we vanish/banish the past becomes something we can’t be nearly so casual about.
Rather, deletion becomes dangerous. It becomes less about shaping an image we look at than shaping reality we experience — or endure. We’re living in a time when Holocaust deniers run proud and unopposed within major political parties, when massive social media platforms all but promote hoaxes from conspiracy theorists (though YouTube did recently take steps by removing InfoWars videos from the site), and when truths we agreed upon have come unmoored from the reality we share.
I never thought I’d develop a soft spot for bureaucracy, but now more than ever, it’s important we keep watch of what’s being altered, amended, edited, tweaked, twisted, or outright deleted from under us. Without a past to refer to, without a record to stand on, we have no bearings or balance as a nation. We may not need what’s inside all of those boxes, but what if we do?