I’m grappling, this week, with the 21st century problem we didn’t see coming: death in a digital age. It’s almost as if those 1960s futurists thought we might have solved this by now; the eternal and endless problem that someday, everything must end.
What we lack in jetpacks and jumpsuits in silver lamé, we make up for in unexpected ghosts, startling awake every time we open Facebook or Twitter or WhatsApp. It’s unnerving and it’s tricky to navigate, and if you’re here, too (as almost everyone will be), you’re not alone.
Oh, there are “solutions” provided, but they don’t do much – changing a Facebook setting so that the person I loved most becomes “in memoriam” doesn’t do a thing about the essential strangeness of having the striking, constant minutiae of our vanished daily lives at my fingertips.
I can click any day on his Twitter profile and see our last tweets; our last DMs. I can see the first time we ever spoke to each other, if I want. Our lives – like so many people of our generation – have played out, at least in part, online.
A friend who died when we were in secondary school still gets messages on her Facebook wall; if you want, you can scroll back down to before it happened, and see her, perpetually in her teens, laughing with her friends.
I suppose all this could feel comforting, to know you can look at all of this any time you want. I suppose it could feel like a way of keeping the lost around; a way of acknowledging their constant presence in our lives. I thought it would.
And yet – when it was me, when it was mine – I became conscious, suddenly, that I felt like the custodian of a museum I never even wanted to visit. Every exhibit felt simultaneously infinitely important and infinitely heavy – and infinitely fragile.
For, one day, Facebook will become obsolete, too. And so will Twitter and WhatsApp. That’s how it always goes. And then those things, too, will fade: how many ghosts were lost when MySpace stopped mattering? Bebo? Shut-down forums, deleted comments sections, long-defunct GeoCities websites?
And I wondered, too: is it really healthy to be able to see the first conversations we ever had? Is it helpful to be able to scroll through nearly eight years of flirting, fighting and everything in between? Does it make me feel better to be able to find out, at the touch of a button, where we met for supper in March 2013, or whether he could pick up some milk on the way home one evening in January 2015, or (speaking more recently, and more medically) what his blood counts looked like for any given fortnight in the last three years?
Somewhere out there, he and I are still eating dinner; picking up bits on the way home; laughing much too loud in a hospital ward
I don’t know. I didn’t think about any of this in those terms until my phone broke, the week after he died, and I lost everything.
Somewhere between my old phone and my new phone, my WhatsApp history fell through the gaps. Every message he’d ever sent me there; every message I’d ever sent him. All those dinner plans, shopping lists and medical records – gone. Gone somewhere into the digital ether. I backed them up, and can’t get into the back-up; I don’t have his phone, so I can’t see them from his end; my old phone (now too hot to hold without oven gloves; impossible to charge; no home button) refuses to yield anything. They must be there somewhere. But I can’t see them; I can’t scroll through them or touch them or get to them in any meaningful way.
They have returned to the ether, the way all conversations used to. It was a little bit like losing him all over again, to lose those conversations. I had been holding those messages – my museum – like a temple to live in; reading through them like pressing on a bruise. And then the bruise was gone. I am not the custodian of those conversations any more.
But, here’s the thing. There are theories of time – which I don’t pretend to understand, or even pretend to be reporting here accurately – that suggest that time is the fourth dimension. And, according to these theories, if you were a 4D being, you could navigate around that fourth dimension the way that we – as 3D beings – navigate around depth and breadth and height. You could go backwards and forwards and up and down in it; you could see all the events in all history all happening at once. The past and the present and the future could coexist – the way the existence of London doesn’t override the existence of Cairo and Paris and Mars. I like these theories, or my version of them.
I like them because they suggest that somewhere out there – lost to me, but not to some mysterious 4D being – everything is still happening. Somewhere out there, he and I are still eating dinner; picking up bits on the way home; laughing much too loud in a hospital ward. Like all our texts, it’s gone for me, but not gone really. And this is comforting to me, and maybe to you, too.
I’m not saying – of course I am not saying – delete your history with your loved lost ones. What I am saying, I suppose, is only that when your phone breaks or the site closes down or you accidentally hit “delete all” without meaning to – they will still be out there somewhere.
And maybe there’s nothing more fitting to the futuristic tradition than that after all: a sense that the universe is bigger and more beautiful than you can possibly imagine, and contains everything that ever was, or will be. That’s how I’m consoling myself, just now – it’s all still out there, somewhere. It’s all still somewhere.