Off the Board, Opinion

The unspoken harm of digital hoarding

Toward the end of my winter break, I flipped open my copy of the New York Times to find a dying Seneca, scantily clad with arms outstretched as if to spread the last vestiges of his sagacity to his surrounding party. He was trapped in the chassis of an article written by Molly Young, who was describing the revival of Stoic philosophy during the pandemic. Young writes that ancient philosophers Epictetus and Seneca practiced stoicism to escape psychological enslavement—which, today, many attribute to their abundant screen time. But this is old news; we are all too cognizant of (and admittedly complacent with) the fact that technology is taking over our lives. A grave element of the issue, however, often flies completely under the radar—that is, our newfound capacity to indulge in technological hoarding. 

It is not just the photos dating back 10 years that we carry around with us. It is the countless messages across every social media platform that have documented our every conversation. Not to mention our notes apps, brimming with every grocery list, fleeting idea, or emotional word vomit we have churned out over the last decade. In the same space, the digital footprint looms, ominous and unassuming, ready to bite us in the ass with a mortifying Facebook status from 2013. The development of iCloud has ensured that the litter of our daily lives—things our parents would scrawl down on scraps of paper or send away in physical letters—remains with us on every device for the rest of our lives. 

We casually carry around remnants of every moment, relationship, and discussion we have had since our adolescence. The healthy bunch of our generation might pay this no mind, but to the anxious remainder, these colossal archives are a merciless poison. Nostalgia, the secret force behind our troubles, convinces us that life is nothing without moments to remember, good or bad. Poet Anaïs Nin once wrote that we write to taste life twice; the victims of Nostalgia, however—who pore over old texts or notes like daily prayers—do not read their writing as a rare indulgence, but as a persistent and nauseating gorging.

We consume good memories like drugs—looking back at our pictures or notes to chase the first high of the lived moment, but never quite catching up to it. As we re-indulge in these moments, the dull ache of forcibly induced dopamine rises like bile in our chests, each time less potent than before. A once determined fist that has tired of knocking on the same door, its wrist too limp to cause that satisfying rap against the wood. 

We devour the bad memories with the same insatiable voracity. We mull over the word choice in our every text. We feed on each obsessively recorded moment in our notes apps. We revisit conversations that should have been forgotten the moment they happened. Like a siren, Nostalgia beckons, promising us signs of personal growth, or at least a little more self-awareness, should we return to these memories. And so every horrendous haircut, traumatic interaction, and cringe-worthy word written to a trusted friend—or a despised ex—it’s all there, preserved in our useless Library of Alexandria that we refuse to let burn. 

How can we expect to heal from a past that we can never escape? Whenever our ancestors said something to regret or experienced something profound, they would allow the memory of the moment to dissolve. The shame or embarrassment or joy would fade with time. Our cells may divide and regenerate every decade or so, the same way theirs did—but we prevent ourselves from shedding the skins of our past.

Whether it is guilt, loss, rage, or pure sentimentality that has you rummaging through your past, know that it is a practice we were never meant to engage in at this level. Purging our phones of our past is something we all must do for a semblance of primeval sanity. Clicking delete may feel like losing a part of ourselves, but it is the only way for us to grow. 

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