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My Favourite Planet > Blogs > Edwin Drood's Column > October 2012
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16 October 2012
Maux de passe at the Mysterious Edwin Drood's Column
Maux de passe
In which Edwin wonders what will happen to everything that can’t be reduced to bytes and bits.
Jean-Michel has been sorting his mother’s attic ... and cellar and kitchen and winter-garden and garage and, yes, savings book and that little-bit-tucked away in a jar on the mantel and ...

I never met Jean-Michel’s mum when she was alive. In fact I didn’t even know until last month that he had one although it seems to be the general rule. He’s a quiet sort of bloke, friendly enough but diffident and non-intrusive, so I tend to be the same. We have those sort of male conversations that could just as easily take place in a shed, on a bus, under a jacked-up car or down the pub: high on content but rather low on emotional cohesion. So when I heard his mum had died I couldn’t very well say much more than, “Oh, sorry to hear that”, followed by the usual questions as to whether she’d suffered much and how old she was.

It was this last question that unlocked my otherwise taciturn friend. “I always remember her young”, he said. “In my mind’s eye, Maman is always taller than me, with beautiful hair that looks like Sunday. I recall her the way she looked when I first became aware that she was a lovely woman by the standards of the world and not just by mine. I must have been about three. I think I resented the fact that she let life change her, so I remember her unchanged, happy, courted.”

Death would seem to have been a relief at the end, as she was in acute arthritic pain and shrunken down to something more like Mrs Tiggywinkle than the stately maiden from Poitiers who had married a career civil-servant twice her age and dutifully given birth to two strapping baby boys some fifty years earlier in the white enclave of Philippeville, Algeria. Believing her husband, a senior colonial police officer, to be lost in the infamous 1955 massacre that she and her toddler twins had so narrowly escaped through the serendipity of arriving after it was over – thanks to a taxi with a broken gear-box – she made her way back to France.

That proud nation was unnaturally harsh with those who represented a lost cause. She never again moved in quite the same circles, nor held the status she had enjoyed in North Africa. And even after the boys’ father turned up, not dead, but suffering severe trauma from having been forced to witness the gruesome executions of his French and Algerian colleagues, their life together as a young family was but a pale, restrained version of what she had formerly known. Eventually, Jean-Michel’s father was sent with his little family to Belgium, to serve as political attaché to an international Franco-Belgian police unit that briefly predated Interpol. This counted as a diplomatic posting and allowed him early retirement, but he was still a broken man and thus barely passed his sixtieth birthday.

The boys, largely untouched by all this living history, grew up strong and broad-shouldered, did well at school and took to rugby like pigs to gin in a town that prided itself on having produced three national wingers. After the years in Brussels and their father’s death, they found it daily harder to live with their mother’s unending melancholy, and soon left home, ostensibly to study, but really in a search for adventure. J-M’s twin, Jean-Paul, found misadventure instead, and it killed him in the shape of a foolish escapade in the Alps with some inexperienced student friends.

You never quite get over the loss of a twin. The grieving brother resolved to become, if not actually immortal, then at least very hard to kill. He was to make a career of it, albeit a short one. Elite soldiers only serve for fifteen years with an optional extension of contract for a further maximum of five more. With no wars to fight, at least no official ones, he never made better than captain. However, his experience of the friendly collegiality of the Belgian armed forces, so in contrast with the snobbish rank-pulling so common in France at the time, certainly confirmed his choice of citizenship. Even though his mother returned to a bungalow in some dull suburb outside the Paris ring, Jean-Michel stayed on here and gradually got into the habit of seeing his sole known relative only at Christmas or on her birthday.

But what has all this to do with passwords*? You may well ask. Relax, pay attention and I’ll tell you in good time. I realized today, that even after just a few, short, digital years, I already have at least half a dozen sites, personal WebPages and internet fora (spellchecker doesn’t like Latin plurals, I will have to say “forums” ... ugh!) that I’m signed up to, hold passwords and logins for, but never visit because either I have forgotten why I joined, forgotten the logins and passwords (very likely) or because the sites themselves have become irrelevant for me.

Now J-M, as think I mentioned, is currently occupied in sorting his mother’s things and not finding it easy. His was a surprisingly well-documented childhood. His father, the policeman, was a keen photographer, who carefully catalogued each shot of his beautiful wife – she had something of a Catherine Deneuve look – and their adorable twins. Surprisingly, despite the desperate times and the carnage that was going on, the boxes of photos got back to France, as did the policeman’s collection of rare North African Rai-Jazz 78s and LPs, nearly all of his clothes, his dress uniform and reams of letters he had written his wife in the years when they were courting and before her passage to Algiers was approved.

All of these memorabilia are currently bringing a grown man to tears. How many photos of a long-neglected mother in her youth and beauty can he look at without breaking down? How many love letters can he read without wondering why he has never found anything comparable? How many images of a long-dead father and a long-dead twin brother can he stand to see when their shapes rise out of the past to cast shadows across his own loneliness? J-M is being emotionally lacerated by these soft, leather-bound albums and ribbon-tied boxes, these shellac and vinyl discs and their attendant bits of bulky, outdated technology.

All this historical clutter is also facing him with that dilemma so typical of our digital age: just because we can do it, shall we and should we? He knows that the photos can be scanned and archived online. The diaries can be transcribed and blogged. The 78s and vinyls can be converted into bits and bytes and may even sound better for it (there are programs designed just for this particular kind of re-rendering). There’s no need to keep all that stuff: where and for whom? Just digitize it and dump it. But will that genuinely serve to archive the past? Will the past remain authentic? Will it still “exist” in the future-present? Will our archives themselves be future-proof? Will the digitized artefacts still have social and historical relevance when they no longer exist in the “real” sense. And just what is reality, anyway? We’ve been here before, I think.

Because today, since we can now transfer our personal past and our parents’ past up to the cloud, we are finally freed from the necessity of maintaining artefacts. Ours is a virtual culture of virtual, walk-through-tours and we shall leave little behind for historians that we have not wiped the stains off and photo-shopped into a brighter shade of fail. They will rummage through our rubbish bins, of course; archaeologists love a nice tip. They will reconstruct our naff housing and our plastic-trimmed vehicles, our designer kitchen equipment and our beloved espresso machines, they will get to the vacuous root of our desire for the domestic life (because we have no other), they will be able to note at which point in history our geopolitical adventures on each horizon changed from exploration to intervention to expulsion to tourism and whether it made things any better – whatever that may mean to them – but the real us, our true dimensions, our blood and guts, our moral fibre and our emotional centre will escape them because it’s all migrated onto the web, out there, up there, wherever “there” is.

But not for long will our forgotten passwords resist them as they mine their way through gazillions of peta- or even exabytes of ancient data, among which they may hope to find their own great-grandmother’s Facebook page, the emails of some long-dead internet poet, the purely digital artworks of an entire Japanese cultural movement spanning seven decades, a trace of the very first Rick-Rolling troll on YouTube, the original Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe or President Romney’s tweets. And yet, despite their most assiduous efforts and skills in decryption, in the words of the song: “You’ll still know nothing ‘bout me”.

For the digital hearth is colder than the coldest iron-age fireplace ever unearthed and the tools that will be discovered nearby, though they tell a million entrancing stories and enticing threads of rumour, will reveal no great truths. For the age of great truths is past and we have moved into the twittering classes where all is relative and nothing, but nothing is fixed or certain, and indeed may never be again.

I advise J-M to keep the photo albums, the 78s, the LPs, the wind-up gramophone and search eBay for some replacement stylus needles. The future might turn out to be a long, dark night ... and company from the past is better than none at all.

© Edwin Drood, October 2012

Illustration: Detail from "Les enfants cherchant une gravure" by Pierre Edouard Frère (1819-1886)
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