I harbor a particular fondness for gradual, physical change. I have a brown leather case for my iPhone, and I relish the ghostly patterns slowly developing on it from the oils in my hand. The pen I carry with me everywhere is a German-made, raw brass fountain pen that bears a unique, ever-changing patina. I use it to keep a journal by hand, and I marvel at how even a tiny layer of ink and shallow impressions from the nib warp and bow the pages such that, from the side, you can tell at a glance how much of the notebook has been used. When my partner and I rearranged our furniture recently, I was fascinated to discover the difference in color between the area of the rug—less than a year old—that had been under the couch and the part that had been exposed to the light.
No matter how carefully we treat the objects we surround ourselves with, we can’t help but permanently alter them. We wear paths into the floors of our homes, tracing the patterns of our daily lives. Hundreds of years of trudging footsteps turn ostensibly solid and immutable stone steps slick and treacherous. Even our own bodies become warped by use: long-haul truck drivers show greater sun damage on the side of their face next to the cab window, musicians develop calluses on their fingers or round indentations on their lips.
These physical changes are clues to an object’s history—and to the identity of the person who created them. Archaeologists examine the wear patterns left on tools in order to divine how they were used. Specific patterns can indicate scraping or cutting, and they differ depending on the material the tools were used, such as wood, stone, bone, or meat. By the same token, appraisers look for irregular signs of wear when authenticating antiques; the side of a cabinet door with the lock will have more nicks and scrapes from unsteady, searching keys.
For centuries, the minute alterations of physical objects—whether the staining of parchment with ink or the patination of a tool handle—were the only signs left behind to prove that a person had once lived. The entirety of someone’s existence could be encoded in the marks left by the oils in their skin, plus a few public records of land ownership or marriage or birth or death.
Today, of course, the average person leaves vastly more information behind than the average person in, say, the nineteenth century. Our daily existence generates more data points, but that trail is largely digital—email chains, browser history, online orders, text messages, call logs, customer service complaints—and therefore more fragile. Our lives have become unmoored from the physical. Perhaps my obsession with gradual, physical change is an attempt to ground myself. I’m not a luddite by any stretch of the imagination—I keep all my writing in the cloud, Instagram the cocktails I mix at home, and never leave home without my iPhone—but a part of me wonders if something might be lost in our rush to digitize our lives, a loss that may only be felt by future generations.
The plot of A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession is set in motion by the chance discovery of a physical object. While searching through the papers of the Victorian-era poet to whom he devotes his scholarship, the main character discovers a letter whose contents could upend his entire field. The corners of the paper stick out slightly from the rest of the stack, and because the lines of dirt and dust align perfectly with the exposed parts of the paper he can assume that no other scholar has previously discovered this letter and researched it.
The likelihood of something like this happening to some future scholar studying the early 21st century seems minimal. Physical traces can easily be lost and rediscovered; even if nothing is done to actively save them, it’s possible for them to be passively preserved. The same can’t be said of digital information, no matter how much we repeat the platitude that anything on the internet lasts forever. Unless someone decides to intentionally save digital content, it can disappear completely, without notice—as The Atlantic reported in a 2015 piece called “Raiders of the Lost Web” about a Pulitzer-finalist investigative series that vanished from the internet. The same article cites a 2008 analysis of digital resources that found that about 8 percent of links stop working within a year. The digital traces of our lives are vanishing before our eyes like memory foam regaining its shape and erasing a hand’s imprint.
What, then, will remain of us for future generations, especially if and when the platforms and systems that house our data (read: lives) disappear? I think about this while running my fingers over my brass pen or observing the well-worn spines of the books on my shelf. If we are what we leave behind, then have we doomed ourselves to ephemerality by turning away from the beauty of physical objects?
Even if efforts to preserve digital data, such as the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine,”are successful, bytes staunchly resist change. A favorite vinyl record will audibly display its owner’s love in the form of scratches and pops; an MP3 will sound the same the first time as it will the millionth. Paying closer attention to the ways in which we alter our world serves as a reminder of both our impermanence and the ways in which parts of us can endure for hundreds or thousands of years.
And, increasingly, we are returning to traditional, analog alternatives: Moleskine sells their popular notebooks out of brick-and-mortar stores, bands produce new music on vinyl (or even cassettes), and reports of the demise of physical books at the hands of ebooks have been greatly exaggerated. So I will continue to embrace the nicks and scrapes, the buffed edges and darkened surfaces that make up my incidental legacy. Appreciating these is like peering into the future and getting a preview of what we will leave behind.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Tayloright