Voices

What happens when your digital life disappears?

2019-08-08 13:55

If you could keep only one memory, what would it be?

That’s a powerful question and one that I was confronted with in 2013, when I stumbled on one of the most jolting, but memorable, exhibitions I’ve seen: The Memory Palace, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The exhibition brought to life a novella by author Hari Kunzru.

Memory Palace is set several hundred years after the world’s information infrastructure was wiped out by a powerful magnetic storm.

The ripple effect was global social breakdown, which led to a dystopian dark age in which most of the world’s technology and knowledge has been lost.

In this apocalyptic, post-digital era, the authorities enforce a life of harsh rules on all citizens: recording, writing, collecting and art are outlawed.

The narrator of the story is in prison: a member of a banned group that has revived the ancient “art of memory”.

They try to memorise as much of the past as they can, in a future where forgetting has been official policy for generations.

I was reminded of this exhibition when I read about Microsoft’s closure of their e-book store.

As of last month, every novel, biography, self-help guide and history book it has sold will simply cease to exist.

If you were one of the unlucky ones who had an e-book account with Microsoft, well, sorry for you.

Their online store FAQ section was as cold and clinical as a click of a mouse: “Starting April 2 2019, the books category in Microsoft Store will be closing. Unfortunately, this means that, starting July 2019, your e-books will no longer be available to read, but you’ll get a full refund for all book purchases. See below for details.”

In this apocalyptic, post-digital era, the authorities enforce a life of harsh rules on all citizens: recording, writing, collecting and art are outlawed.

Gee, thanks. You’ll get a refund, but your carefully curated digital collection will vanish.

Welcome to the world of transient ownership.

Microsoft’s outraged e-book customers will no doubt be directed to the small print where the company did state that these books were loaned to them, rather than being “sold” to them.

But our analogue retail brains have not quite processed this nuance: “I paid for it, therefore I own it.” Not quite.

We understand the nonownership of streaming services such as Netflix and Simfy, but books seem to be a blind spot.

Current digital, antipiracy regulations have also not made provision for e-store closures.

It is still illegal to copy digital content, like books or music, even if you have legally “bought” them.

However, the concept of transient ownership is slowly becoming more acceptable and commonplace.

Earlier this year, Myspace users (I’m not sure who they are, but apparently they still exist) experienced a similar digital wipeout, this time due to a botched server migration.

The site was created in 2003, so this would mean that approximately 15 years’ worth of songs, photos and videos were erased.

Myspace served as a platform for new musicians (such as Lily Allen, Calvin Harris and Arctic Monkeys) to be discovered, so the collective loss of digital data equates to around 50 million songs from 14 million artists.

That’s a large archive. The content will exist on other platforms, but the curation process has evaporated.

However, the concept of transient ownership is slowly becoming more acceptable and commonplace.

In the sharing economy, companies such as Uber and Airbnb have altered our lifestyles and way of thinking.

Digital mobility (e-hailing and ridesharing) is on track to make car ownership seem like an outdated 20th-century concept by mid-century.

For millennials, renting anything from your wardrobe to your furniture is becoming second nature, while, for Generation Z, ephemeral social media, such as Snapchat and Instagram stories, is priming them for an age of transience, whether it’s content or ownership.

But there is still that nagging dystopian possibility, and now it has a name: digital fragility.

In May 2017 an IT meltdown for British Airways, at the start of a long weekend, created chaos for 75 000 passengers at Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

The cause was not some cybersecurity breach, but a simple, inadvertent power cut, followed by incorrect and unauthorised system restoration procedures.

Ironically, on the same weekend, a cyberattack did occur. Malware, named WannaCry, aimed at Microsoft Windows systems infected 300 000 computers across 150 countries.

Global banks, multinational corporations and even government departments were held to ransom. This is the contrariness of digital fragility: it can be intentional as well as unintentional.

There’s a reason there’s a growing global mantra of “less stuff, more stories”.

It’s the rise of the experience economy where more and more people are opting to pay for memories – travel, adventure, fine dining – rather than amass more physical possessions.

We’re discovering that the former actually makes us happier than the latter.

And even though we now try to capture all those experiences via our camera phones, digital fragility could wipe them all away in an instant.

We’ll just have to learn that the memories you hold in your brain are far better than the ones you store in the cloud.

Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit fluxtrends.com

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August 18 2019