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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Virtual loss

Will we end up being the first generation without a history?

At the fag end of a fabulous holiday in the Maldives, I lost my mobile phone. It happened like this. The hotel had set up a picnic on a platform in the middle of the Indian Ocean to showcase the setting sun. The flowers on the table were gleaming in the soft candle-light, the champagne was chilling in the ice-bucket and I was happily recording the scene on my camera phone.

I set it down beside me so that I could pop one of those delicious looking canap├ęs in my mouth. And just then, a huge gust of wind blew it right off the platform, depositing it into the depths of the ocean. All I could do was stare open-mouthed with astonishment.

In that instant, the euphoria generated by the beauty and serenity of the Maldives, the sense of well-being engendered by several hours of hedonistic massages and serious pampering in the spa, was destroyed, leaving me devastated and near-tears.

Overreaction? You might think so, but I couldn’t possibly agree.

You see, I hadn’t just lost a mobile phone, easily replaced by a visit to a shop. I had also lost a significant part of my life. Along with the phone, it had vanished in the depths of the ocean, taking my memories with it.

It wasn’t just the many pictures I had taken on holidays like this one, snapshots of birthday celebrations of close friends, or even portraits of my niece, the newest – and dare I say, cutest – member of my family. It was also the many messages that I was saving from friends and colleagues that marked important moments or events in my personal and professional life.

On a more practical level, the loss was just as immense. I had lost my entire contact list, built up over several years in journalism, which – true to form – I had neglected to back up on my computer.

Not that computers guarantee any kind of safety either. I have lost count of the number of times friends have called me in despair because their PCs/laptops have crashed wiping out the entire library of pictures that chronicled their lives and the music list which contained the songs they lived it by.

But then, that’s the danger of adopting a digital lifestyle. Your entire history is at the mercy of technology which can erase it in a moment – and, of course, sooner or later it does.

It’s a scary thought, isn’t it? But despite the fact that these worst-case scenarios are all too common, none of us have any compunction about embracing the virtual age with a vengeance. Going digital is all the rage, and we are all buying into this trend.

One of the first casualties of this is the art of letter writing. We no longer write home recounting our adventures or even detailing the minutiae of everyday life. We simply pick up the phone and have a casual – even desultory – conversation, send a terse sms to say that all is well, or dash off a rushed email that is deleted as soon as that inbox begins to get a bit clogged.

No meaningful conversation or dialogue is possible in these circumstances, nor is it feasible to have a fruitful exchange of ideas or information. The era in which Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s letters to his young daughter Indira were thoughtful and informative enough to form the basis of three books – Discovery of India, Glimpses of World History and the recently released Letters from a Father to his Daughter – is well and truly over.

Somehow A Father’s Smses to his Daughter doesn’t have quite the same ring. And that appears to be the best that our generation can do, given that these days all social intercourse seems to be conducted by digital means. We speak on the phone, we communicate through email and sms, we store our records – both written and pictorial – on the computer. It’s almost as if we are determined to leave no physical evidence behind as we go through the motions of our lives.

Our parents’ generation left behind a plethora of material, a rich and colourful record of lives lived in letters and pictures. Today, the letters may be yellowing, the photographs fraying at the edges, but they still have an immediacy to them. We may not recognize all the faces, the handwriting may have faded but these mementoes give us a glimpse into the past, imbue us with a sense of personal history,

So, I can’t help but wonder our generation will we leave behind? A couple of compact discs, an overflowing email in-box? That’s assuming of course that we haven’t lost all of this in the interim in a computer crash or two.

The way things are going, we look set to vanish off the face of the earth leaving behind no visible traces. And that could well make us the first generation without a history.

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