I am a millennial hoarder.
I don’t keep things. Things fall apart, Chinua Achebe taught me. Things break, and tear, and get lost. They wear out. They get holes, they turn from crisp white to soft wrinkled yellow. Things age as we age. Things, like people, slowly lose their memories.
I am a hoarder, but I don’t keep things. I keep the digital imprints of them.
I had this pair of shoes in college. Black patent leather, 2” heels. The most classic style you can imagine. I wore them to cocktail parties and happy hours and nightclubs and interviews. For a good while they stayed presentable enough to be seen in polite company, but they worked hard and partier harder and eventually I had to relegate them to drinking duty. I dubbed them my Toad’s heels, because Toad’s Place was the go-to Saturday night dance club near my college campus.
I once read somewhere that you should never throw out your shoes, and I understand exactly why the writer said it. These shoes were like an old, loyal, stylish girlfriend. They had seen me through just about every out-of-class college experience, with the exception of a very ill-advised foam party and an extremely muddy spring fling, both of which resulted in some flip-flip casualties. My Toad’s heels could have told you every story there was to tell. They knew all my dirty secrets and still they kept me company on every new adventure I proposed. They were fantastically reliable companions and they never judged.
But when the time came to pack up my dorm room, I took one look at them, in all their scuff-marked glory, and knew it was over. Into the trash they went. It was time to move on, grow up, make room for new shoes and new cities and new lives. I had no more need for my Toad’s heels. My foot size might have been unchanged since age 14, but nevertheless, I had outgrown them.
It was a strange coincidence, but my college computer died the night I threw my Toad’s heels out. I had just come back from a week in Myrtle Beach with the rest of the senior class, and I remember that when I opened the door to my quiet, empty dorm room it felt smaller and smelled unused. It had already begun erasing me.
I threw my bag on the floor, where it deposited a little circle of South Carolina sand, sat down at my desk, and pressed the power button on my still-open laptop. Nothing happened. My computer of four years, my little Lenovo Thinkpad that had survived 3:00 am problem sets and a million emails and, most recently, my senior essay marathon, had called it quits two days before my graduation. It wouldn’t turn on anymore.
I should probably have tossed the computer along with the rest of my college-era trash. When, realistically speaking, would I ever need access to the reading response I wrote in the third week of my Civil War class? When would I ever wish to consult my paper on American Progressivism and the 1920s prostitution laws? The answer is, never. Not once in the last five years. Probably not once in the next five, either — or 25, for that matter.
Still, I didn’t just save the computer’s undamaged hard drive. I saved the whole damn machine. And to top it off, I copied my entire collegiate email correspondence to a hard disk. I made backups of every paper, ever story, every photograph. Especially the photographs. I couldn’t bear to lose a single little byte.
It’s a peculiar kind of anxiety that comes when something digital is lost. Everyone knows the feeling — the “sad Mac” panic that sends Carrie spiraling in that old Sex and the City episode — you’re not sure why, but you know that everything you’ve ever saved on your computer has some sort of permanent, almost existential importance. My hard drive lives, ergo, I live. The panic is even worse when you can’t remember what you’ve lost. Can’t reconstruct it. Can’t get that moment back, when you recorded some thought or some feeling or some hope or wish forever on a sheet of Microsoft Office paper.
I am more than the digital sum of my parts. My personality exceeds the expressions captured in my Facebook photographs. But I harbor this near-constant dread that I will lose access to the little reservoirs of my universe that I have preserved in the computers-and-internet dimension. One day I may wake up without remembering who I am, and then how will I find out?
Sometimes I think it’s a bad habit. Like Voldemort with his Horcruxes. Constantly saving down little point-in-time copies of ourselves, little fragmented slivers, lest we lose the real thing. They would never be enough to reconstruct us, and yet we cannot rest without knowing they’re there. Out in the cloud. Off in cyberspace. Somehow, somewhere, we will never entirely disappear.
I wonder what it is that I’m so scared of losing. I’m 26. I don’t have amnesia. But here I am, me and my whole Instagram generation, saving every particle of living space for later use. A security blanket. A backup plan. A way to revise, ever so slightly, the way it was when we lived that exact moment. Digital photographs can be filtered, edited, adjusted — but they don’t fade. They tell the truth the way it was in the precise instant we decided to preserve it.
I think I know why we do it. Record everything. Filter it, crop it, save it, post it. Every image, every word. For perpetuity’s sake but also for something else, something more urgent. We haven’t yet found out who we are. We’re panning for gold. Sifting through piles of pictures, old conversations, comments and texts and likes and <3s. We’re hoping to figure our identities by adding up all the noise and the photo flashes and distilling something we can recognize. We’re trying to accumulate ourselves.
I am a digital hoarder. A millennial hoarder. I will save it all until the internet itself falls by the wayside and there’s nothing left to save. It’s human instinct, after all. To remember the things that have come before this. To determine what they mean. It makes sense to save the MS Word docs and the Instagram photographs. But I think, just in case I do get amnesia tomorrow, that it would be dangerous only to save the things that do not age. I think that tomorrow, just in case, I shall start to save my shoes.