The Ephemeral Nature of Data

What the Apple Genius’s tattoo say about us all.

I come to technology like a timid visitor in an opulent home, afraid of what expensive heirloom I might knock over or how my red wine might spill on the white, hand-woven rug purchased at a Sotheby’s auction last week. Our family television — with its state-of-the-art surround sound speakers — can go months in ill repair, a call for service looming like the tangled web of wires hidden in the cabinets beneath the screen. Until recently, my laptop had not had a software update in nearly seven years, my mind imagining the process of updating like a violent storm, thundering through my data leaving behind only shreds of my delicately cultivated musings and pictorial tapestry.

My husband ushered me into the milieu of the iPhone just before our first son was born in 2008. I came dragging my heels not knowing what all the fuss was about. I remember experiencing a sense of panic when he added a bunch of applications to my phone that were contrary to my nature — a military shooting game called Chopper, a stock tracking mechanism, Yahoo sports updates. These apps have long since been replaced by my current display now filled with spiritual prompts, meditations and a daily art delivery along with a happy willingness to be glued to the screen for more hours than I would like to admit. I’ve come to use my phone primarily to document the lives of my children — to create highly focused images of their still small fingers holding objects from nature — a shell or toad, a freshly picked berry from a vine, a hermit crab. I cherish these detailed images capturing the lines of their delicate skin juxtaposed with the wild, natural world surrounding us here in Southern Maine.

His tattoo read,”Per aspera ad astra,” his name I didn’t catch. This was the first of the Apple Geniuses who came to my aide when my now-second iPhone recently died just after I had downloaded a plethora of photos from a family vacation. In retrospect I wondered whether his body art might have been an omen, a harbinger of the days to come in which my relationship with my long-held data and two Millennial men would reveal to me a new place where human contact — and error — can propel us into greater connection.

I remarked to my husband what a miracle it had been that my phone, “waited” to go black until after our vacation download, given the fact that this was yet another example of my avoiding an issue with a mechanical device. For months my phone had been shutting off randomly and not holding a charge and it was only when it finally submitted to the salty and damp conditions of our getaway that I ventured to the Apple store at the Maine Mall in Portland for a consult. I casually decided to bring along my computer thinking I might be assisted with that long-awaited software update as well.

I received a new phone for the cost of a battery and all of my phone data remained intact. My husband and I marveled at our good luck, surreptitiously high-fiving while our children reveled in the free iPad play they were not normally accustomed to. We had thought we would be purchasing an expensive new phone at the mall that day. Perhaps this stroke of luck lulled me into a sense of trust I might otherwise have forsaken. Maybe it was the genius’s cool, black horn-rimmed glasses that lowered my guard. Either way, when he told me my computer would handle the software update without repercussion, I believed him readily. He said the update would take some time and I should complete it at home. I headed to my car, feeling confident and patting myself on the back for coming into the 21st century.

I got the update going that evening and woke in the morning to find that although the update had occurred, I could not open my photo library. If I had to guess at the time, I would have estimated that over the course of my sons’ lives and in my work as an artist in the last seven years, I might have taken around 20,000 photos — how wrong I would have been. I could feel my heart beating in my chest as I searched for the photos. I vowed to remain calm. I made an appointment and met the same technician again back at the Genius Counter within a few hours. I had my backup drive in tow. I was still under the spell of his high-tech prowess and I trusted him when he suggested we remove the photo library completely from my hard-drive and replace it with the library on my back-up drive. I agreed for him to do so overnight at the store and left feeling, once again, confident. As I headed to my car, I thought about the young man with the “Per aspera ad astra” tattoo and I wondered what had led him to choose those divulging words to permanently grace his arm. I thought about how many of us have had to struggle. I imagined us as friends.

I returned to the store the next day to pick up my computer and was met by another Millennial, this one teddy bearish with a bushy beard and rounded stature. He nonchalantly handed over my computer and was prepared to send me on my way. I asked if I could make sure that everything was in its right place. I quickly noticed that only a small fraction of my photos were present in a library that should have been packed full. I tried not to panic. Sweat sprung to my body beneath my Maine, woolen, winter wear. I removed my scarf. I had been in this place once before, back in college, in the middle of the night, losing a term paper to the hand-me-down computer of my youth. This potential loss seemed much more crucial than the forced reflections of a misguided business major. “You made it, you made,” I had said again and again in the video that was taken just after my son was born. Where was that video now? Another technician was called.

Tyler came to my side gingerly. His look was retro-modern with blond, shorn hair on the sides and an almost rockabilly twirl on top. His eyes were big and blue and when he empathized about the photos he mentioned that he had two small children of his own and protected his photos with a backup drive that he kept in a fireproof box. I imagined his children must have his wide eyes and golden hair. He had clearly been in this position before and began looking at my computer tentatively, speaking slowly and deliberately. His pace allowed me to remember who I was and how I choose to be. I was even able to think about how I might have reacted, say, 5 years ago when I was more in the grips of my emotions and at the mercy of their whims. I thanked him for his, “way.”

Without hoopla, Tyler shared that he had found the photos on my backup drive, but they would need to be manually transferred into the updated photo program. This could take days. I was sent away once more, confident but less so than before. Before I left, we discussed why all of this had happened and he shared that the other technician has missed a couple of critical steps in deciding how to proceed with my update. I didn’t feel like blaming anyone. I only wanted my precious photos back.

I called the Apple Store the next afternoon to get an update. A wave of anxiety washed over me when the operator said that Tyler would need to speak to me directly. His voice was hesitant yet he didn’t mince words. While the photos on my computer were being manually transferred, the backup drive became overfilled and automatically deleted several years of my backed up photos — the only ones that existed now. They were running recovery software and it looked promising that they would be able to retrieve my data but it would take at least a week. It turned out that I had taken, not 20,000 but a colossal 48,000 photos and videos, most of which would need to be recovered.

I paused before responding, I felt my feet in my wool socks grounding into our hardwood floor, and I looked over at my two boys playing. I thought, “They are ok.” Those two vibrant, magnificent creatures are all I need to be intact. Somehow in that brief pause I imagined the many, many generations that came before us and the minute number of photos we have hanging around from those equally important lives. I thought about my own brief life and whether in the long run, I needed it all to be so documented.

I turned my attention back to Tyler, “Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for how kind and steady you have been through all of this.” We talked for several minutes. He thanked me for my response and shared that this kind of situation happened only a handful of times each year and that my response was unusual. In that moment, I felt a sort of affection for Tyler that surprised me. I felt a sense of love for all we humans and the way we come in and out of each other’s lives, unexpectedly and with opportunities to grow. I felt seen and as if I was able to recognize the essence of someone I barely knew.

It seemed strange that this had all happened when I hadn’t gone to the store originally with any sort of emergency. The whole experience felt like fertile ground for measuring my ability to truly hold on to what matters. Hanging up the phone, I was elated by the beauty of the human condition and the many ways that we see and miss each other in our many struggles. Some of them small in the big scheme of things and having to do with these crazy, tech-driven lives we’ve set up. Some of them larger, like how we address the real, profound suffering that exists in the world around us.

There was more back and forth for more than a week and ultimately Tyler recovered — I thought — all of my photos. He didn’t allow anyone else to touch my computer. When we met at the store for the final handoff, I asked him if I could hug him. I wanted to hug the young man who had remained honest and human and present in the face of a mountain of potential conflict and upset. I wanted to hug him because I had remained who I was in the face of an also mountainous loss of memories I have cultivated over many years. His cheeks turned a little pink and he smiled, “yes,” and we embraced.

I wish the story ended here. It took me a couple of weeks to realize that many of the images that had been recovered were actually duplicates and my library was in utter disarray with hundreds — if not thousands — of photos missing and all of the many albums I had copiously created over many years — wiped out. Precious videos had also disappeared like the audio cassettes of my childhood. Upon this revelation, all of the expected emotions I’d been so valiantly holding off came rushing forward. I cried — hard. I was angry and overwhelmed by this vast responsibility to be the sole curator of my family’s pictorial legacy. I made one final call to Tyler. He was aloof and hastily wiped his hands of my problem. I found myself loving him a little less but somehow, I did still feel a sense of compassion for the human condition and our nearly constant potential for suffering — both epic and real, and also imagined and a product of this digital era.

I’ve begun sifting through what remains of my photos and videos. There are fewer now and yet I find myself appreciating them more. There is one video that my boys and I have watched a few dozen times since this debacle unfolded last winter. It is amazing that despite their growth, my children’s essence remains exactly as they were at the ages of two and four — Jonah with his boundless enthusiasm and physicality; Adrian with his booming voice and head rocking gently side to side when he speaks. I imagine what it would be like if I could choose just one photo of each of them and which one it would be. I’m more inclined to print out some of the favorite images now and mount them on the walls where we can really experience again the salty beach vacations and endless afternoons in the yard.

I have also come to recognize the inherent ephemeral nature of all of this endless data, regardless of what technological qualifications I might possess in keeping it safeguarded. In the end — like all things — these memories will be fleeting and cannot be preserved forever. I think about the, “Per aspera ad astra” tattoo from time-to-time. It’s translation, “Through hardships to the stars” lingers in my mind after all these many months and I hope that we might somehow all live on in our very own ways — with or without the evidence of photos — propelled by the very nature of the human condition, flashes of light in the night sky.

You can also visit my website to read about the transformative effects of forest bathing & my ode to women in these times of, “me too.”

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