For a moment I worried the little electric motor might not engage like it was supposed to. Then, after I plugged it in, the ball bearings came to life, rattling louder than most of my modern hard drives. I had just found the drive in a closet and it hadn't been turned on for years. A sizable box made of thick aluminum, it held only 160 GB of data – – less than some smartphones these days – – and it required what’s now an antiquated cable and adapter to plug into my newer, shinier computer. As I waited for the drive to mount, I couldn't help but wonder what archaeological treasures I might find. Photographs? Video clips? Letters? Essays? Resumes?
Turned out it was a hard drive from a former colleague. She had moved on to new adventures and this was simply an orphaned piece of outdated technology gathering dust in the closet. Seven more of unknown provenance just like it sat on the table, waiting their turn. Later, after plugging and unplugging the collection, I would discover that some of them, in fact, contained my own stuff, while others held data generated from different sources.
The challenge was in coming to terms with their ultimate future. If I did nothing – – if I made a choice by making no choice – – the hard drive would go back into a cardboard box, then back onto a shelf somewhere in the back of my basement and likely sit there for decades, perhaps until after I was no longer alive and somebody else cleaned out my effects. The files would exist for as long as the drive agreed to start, to say nothing of communicate with whatever new kinds of computers might exist some distant day. But the likelihood that anyone would ever, ever, open it up again and rummage through the dozens of nested directories and their hundreds of files and photos and more, was exceedingly small.
I didn’t want to leave a mess for someone, someday, to have to deal with, long after I was gone. But that didn’t mean I suddenly had use for the data stored on the drives. Much of it related to computer programs that no longer even operated. Even though the data were apparently intact on those drives they were useless; not only irrelevant, but locked into what were effectively dead languages, like hieroglyphics without a Rosetta stone. For many of files I couldn't launch the software programs they required even if I wanted to because I didn’t have working versions anymore. But of those data that I could read—video clips, text files, photos— I still had little use. There were no substantial, finished works on those drives, no notes for novels or songs or photo essays, no major works of any substantial importance. Nonetheless those drives did contain the by-product of lots and lots of work. The stuff they held mattered once, even if they didn’t seem to matter any longer.
That was my dilemma. Somebody (including myself!) had spent time creating these things. Somebody had spent precious, finite days writing these documents and taking photographs and making these video clips. Somebody had made this music. Somebody had taken detailed notes. Somebody had sweated on deadline.
This is what we’re all doing, every day. We’re filling hard drives—and cloud servers and spare bedroom closets and plastic bins shoved under the sofa—with stuff that most likely will have a finite period of utility, only to pass into obscurity down the road. Things that consume our energy and our attention today will be completely irrelevant in a surprisingly short time from now.
What does this mean for art? What does this mean for a creative life? It's too simple to say that the process of creating things is more important than the results. I would hate to think that Beethoven's great expressions are fundamentally irrelevant when placed in the context of history. His music endures, but I cannot help but wonder if that’s simply a false belief in continuity. His music has lasted for 225 years, but in terms of the wide opening to the historical cave, that’s nothing. It’s a historical anomaly. It’s rare.
I’m glad Beethoven’s music endures. I’m glad the Great Pyramids at Giza have not yet reverted to dust, even if they crumble a tiny bit more every day that goes by. I’m glad I’ve somehow managed to preserve the nursery school photos of my own children. But nothing lasts forever. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Perhaps it IS the process of making these things that matters most: making them, sharing them in our immediate present with the people around us, and, if we’re fortunate, sharing them with a larger community beyondthe list of people we know. Perhaps the continuity we preserve is in the subtle, atomic influences our creative vibrations have on collective culture. Some of us exert more of a vibration than others, but after millennia, those peaks and valleys blur into what we now know is a larger historical arc.
To delete these old hard drives would be to immolate a tiny bit of our collective legacy, our future past. But saving them would be foolish, too. In other words, while I couldn't delete those hard drives it didn’t mean I knew what to do with them either.