Ciaran Walsh | Dear Analog
Cursed as I am with an unreliable memory, this modern life with its apps and trappings can sometimes be a comfort. Facebook backs up the basics of my life, Twitter records my broadcasted thoughts, my phone keeps a carbon copy of every textual relationship I’ve ever had, and Google saves each search and the location where I sought it.
This is the ‘big data’ of my life. And if some nefarious government organisation, product peddler, or anonymous group wants to access this binary bullshit, then that is the opportunity cost I happily pay in order for this information to be available for recall. For as much as we are a surveilled people in this online world, big data does not make the big picture of who we really are.
I would’ve liked to have been a diarist or a man of letters but I am neither. I can, however, look to seventeen years’ worth of emails to fill in the lacunae from my adult life and to answer the question of who I really am.
Looking back over those communiqués, it’s clear the past is another country. Documented electronically are various college experiences, early forays into professional life, friendships, relationships, lives, and deaths. But reading your own diary is like looking at your own vomit and this amassment only forms a half picture. In the main, it’s filled with quickfire snapshots of daily life and it lacks any deep detail.
There is one crucial piece of written evidence that is missing. A handwritten letter, spanning multiple pages, that documents - in glorious technicolour and in language as coarse as an IKEA towel - every single damn thing that should never be placed on record. A letter whose contents were so explosive that they led to me being kicked out of home for the second,and final time. And even though it was penned by my own hand, I mainly blame David.
David and I were friends in college. We had palled around for a couple of years in the same wider circle but for a couple of post-exam weeks in the summer of 1999 our mutual love of cheap hash and daytime drinking meant we spent each day in the other’s pocket, living for the moment, yellow pack style. We’d listen to Spirtualized, talk about girls; who we lusted over, who we’d already trysted with, share stories, brag, laugh, and feel secure in the fact there was two of us wasting our days. There’s comfort in numbers. Even if the number is just one other.
Dave dreamed of an armchair made of hash, I dreamed of college lasting forever. I was already caught under the wheel of a wastrel’s life, wishing away the inevitable harsh reality of the world outside. We made for a raffish pair. At least looking back it felt that way, laying out in the sun or wobble-walking about the place like a pair of gentrified drunks. We didn’t care where we lost our faculties - Law, Science, Arts, Medicine class parties were all fair game.
My plans were not set in stone but David was all set for a J1 visa to Canada and as he departed, he said he’d write me a letter. Later that summer I would turn 21, and despite awkward relations at home, barely two days after Dave had left I was presented with an early birthday gift, a ‘coming of age’ cheque. It was unexpected, but well received and it numbered in the low thousands.
Not long after, a letter arrived from David. He was enjoying Canada, working in a cafe and sharing a flat with, among others, one of the girls from college he talked about a lot. It seemed like something could happen between them. The letter was earnestly funny and deserved a response.
I sat down and started to write. I wrote like an explorer might if he had found a new world, detailing every single thing about life back in Dublin; the tastes, the sounds, every sexual encounter, every drug bought, sold or ingested, every swear word, every bawdy remark, I shone a light on every dark moment and laid bare the minutia of a mad summer.
It wasn’t only my life that I documented, but the lives of everyone else we knew, who was doing what, and who, and how many times. It was my finest work, my magnus. And then, I didn’t send it.
I had booked a trip to Atlanta for the remainder of the summer and decided that the letter would look even better with a stamp from Georgia, USA, on it. It was to be the crowning badge of honour of this corrupted correspondence. Needless to say, the letter lay at the bottom of my bag throughout that hot summer in the American south and I forgot all about it.
Now, as much as I blame David for getting me into a letter-write-off, I take issue with Delta Airlines for what happened next, because when they lost my luggage on the return flight to Dublin, they crucified me.
Had that bag never been found, I could have lived with losing the letter and whatever late 90s fashion items I had accumulated. But when the airport authorities located my dirty laundry (both literally and figuratively), they promptly sent it to the address the flight tickets were registered to - my parents’ house.
I can’t recall the exact wording of the letter but it would be impossible for me to forget the evening my folks sat me down and my mother took out the crumpled heap of foolscap paper before starting to read back my own words to me: “Dearest Dave….”
There is no level of embarrassment above the one where your mother reads out line after descriptive line of your most Bacchanalian experiences. And as each paragraph of ever-descriptive decrepitude coaxed more tears down her cheeks, there was no swallowing hole big enough to take me away. The row that ensued on completion of this wretched recital resulted in my ejection from the family home. And rightly so.
I never found out what happened to that letter (my mother passed away a few years ago and it’s not the kind of thing you ask your father about). The letter obviously never arrived to the intended person. It landed in the hands of the two people on earth I didn’t want reading it. I’m not even sure if I wanted David to read it, perhaps that’s way I was sluggish to post it. Maybe it was some form of censorship-free treat for myself. Either way, the outcome was a jolting of my life onto another, certain path, one where I was at times free-wheeling and at others more cautious, but ultimately I see it as the turning point of a life I now have and looking back, it’s something that I cannot regret, however mortifying it was
Of all the information that exists about me, whether it’s voluntarily given or not, this lost letter is probably the most acute snapshot of any particular point in my life yet there’s a comfort in knowing it’s lost forever.
It’s harder to lose oneself online, but to think that our digital fingerprint sums up who we are or that our personalities could be somehow gleaned or cloned from the marks we leave there is false.
Computers may hold a vast amount of our lives’ big data but computers are just peering at Plato’s wall. Without being able to contextualise the information, the internet can only exile us from the unexpected, pigeon-holing who we are based on what we’ve previously done, corralling us into like-minded groups. Life is more than an algorithm, we are the sum of our experiences and much more that cannot be quantified. The notion of who we are is in constant flux. My memory may be unreliable but I remember enough to know this...and to burn once read.