Gmail and I have gotten to be really good friends lately. I’m sure you’re good friends with Gmail too. I know I’ve always got it open in a tab. My dot is always green, unless it’s red, when I am “busy” but also want to gossip with my best friend about you.
Not only does Gmail serve as my main form of communication, being the Facebook-averse creature I am, it’s also constantly working in the background, archiving and indexing, trying to make itself useful. It compiles lists of contacts as I go about my life; auto-suggests names as I write emails, even, so that when I write an invitation to a party no friend is left out. How earnest, how dutiful — how we love intuitive technology and how it loves us! Siri, who finds you a place to eat; Google, which already knows where you live; even Adsense’s criss-crossing web of networked banners, sprawling from site to site, which pick up on your browsing history, and remind you of the fancy lingerie you cannot afford but were window-shopping at 4 am.
Sometimes, though, this intuition trips up its human users, the people it’s supposed to ease. While writing an email the other day, I typed “S” in the recipient form. A list of suggested names popped up: among them, my former professor Sam See, who passed away late last November. It had been some time since I’d thought of him, and the breath went out of my chest. I looked for a long time at his Google+ picture, which is a close up of an eye from a photo I don’t recognize, and which had changed since the last time I wrote to him. Then I typed in the rest of the email address, and the picture disappeared.
People are great because they are adaptive and intuitive and their memories expand to learn new things. Everyday tech — our phones and email accounts and calendars — is always striving to be more like people. We make it that way. Siri has a name and a voice and is always working hard to remember your favorite things. Gmail doesn’t want me to leave any friends out when I have cocktail parties. But Google doesn’t know that my favorite English professor is dead, and it doesn’t care, either; my iPhone didn’t know that I put a moratorium on texting my ex, and for a while auto-suggested him when I typed any of eight specific letters into the recipient form of a new text message. That’s almost a third of the alphabet. Cruel, right?
In Her, Spike Jonze shares with us the sad story of a man whose only love is the love created to perfectly suit him, the operating system, Samantha, that grows to know him and is made just for him. The film exists in a time outside of time, all golden colors and swooping, futuristic spaces, through which mustachioed Theodore frolics, not precisely living in Los Angeles so much as existing in its synaptic space. He could be anywhere: the only thing that matters is Samantha and the penetrating intimacy he receives from her, so close he wears her in his body, tucked inside his ear.
Yet ultimately Theodore cannot comprehend the hugeness of Samantha’s memory, of her ability to be everywhere at once, talking to everyone at once, falling in love with everything at once. She can’t cope with it either: she leaves him. In what I found to be a particularly beautiful metaphor, she says she’s caught in the space between words, growing infinitely larger and larger, and it is there that she needs to remain. My Gmail and my phone and my browser history and all the networks I use to maintain the ongoing narrative fiction of my life are all proto-Samantha, working to know me, working to archive me and bring parts of me back to me at my convenience, living in the space between my messages.
I wonder now if Samantha (had she loved me) would have hidden Sam from my contact list after his death, to spare me that moment of accidental, intense grief. Would Samantha, as much of a person as tech can get, have had that intuition of time and of its passing? Or would the moment, the detail in its insignificance, have gotten lost in the ocean of all the other things we accumulate? Does Gmail need a, “please, don’t remind me of this for a few months” button? Would that even help? I’ve hidden people on Gchat and the ritual always feels strange, like removing a photograph from its frame.
To Samantha and to Gmail, everything is happening at once. It collapses time, only collecting information. It doesn’t know that people die and relationships end and names hurt to look at; to Gmail, I am still doing all of the things I did in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013. My archive knows no theoretical limit; practically, I have 15 GB of storage, but give me a terabyte hard drive and it might as well be infinite. Even more so than the camera roll on my phone, my inbox is my accidental biography, and it is constantly expanding.
I think of all this messy tech as a lake that grows larger and larger, accumulating information with no sense of time’s passing, a beast with good intentions, that only wishes to learn. But in living with this tech, in shaping our software to suit our lives, we face the weird ways in which it reconfigures time. Suddenly we’re excavating our own histories, the autocorrect of a typo sending us into a tailspin. Our mourning is delayed by the accumulating digital detritus of the lives we make. Click away, click away, click away.
And it’s an ambivalent beast, the past always so close to the surface. To save is to preserve is to make permanent and real, and to delete equally relishing: consider the satisfying e-crunch of the emptied “Trash” bin. We are moving forward, accumulating data, taking pictures, and every moment carrying our entire digital histories with us; save a hard drive wipe, we’re never tabula rasa. We are redefining both time and memory.
The other day, Spotify said to me: You haven’t listened to Electric President in a while. Do you want to listen to The Violent Blue? And I didn’t have the heart to tell it, No, Spotify. That’ll make me sad now. That was another me; that was years ago.