On a perfectly ordinary Saturday this January, Anno Domini 2024, my laptop died. It bit the dust. ‘Twas gathered to its ancestors. Kicked the bucket. Bought the farm. Or maybe it just shuffled off its mortal coil.
So many expressions that we have to describe death—and many of them are humorous in a way utterly disrespectful of human life and its preciousness. They are, however, appropriate for describing the strange demise of a creature that never truly lived yet had a life of sorts—a life that sustained my own modern intellectual existence as a writer. Its life mattered to me. Its death hurt. Besides, it wasn’t in the budget for that month.
To be honest, ‘twas not the most poetic of endings. I simply opened it that fateful morning, and as I did, the screen came off the right hinge—partially unhinged, one could say—sending the images on screen into convulsive trembling lines and dots, before going black. Like a hero in the Homeric epics, its spirit left its body. Its eyes were closed forever in endless sleep.
The guy at the local computer repair shop took one look before telling me that it would cost more to repair than the machine was worth. And so, it was pronounced dead for good. I still haven’t buried the body, though. It just sits in the corner of my home office until I can figure out where one can safely dispose of electronics around here, offering in the meanwhile continued reminders of the fragility of life even for objects in our lives that cannot be born—and, therefore, technically cannot die either. At least, like the bodies of true saints and holy martyrs, it does not stink.
It was an inconvenient death—and, I admit, a terrifying one. For my greatest fear, as for any writer, is losing my ideas, the work of years, contained within that object. Of course, these ideas have always been mine and remain my property regardless of the existence of this inanimate rectangular device, now mangled and deformed in its unruly demise. And yet, I had so confidently yet gullibly entrusted my ideas—in a massaged, tortured, exhausted form—to this machine’s safekeeping, not thinking that it too is a feeble creature of dust, liable to sudden death by unhinging.
Its death, so sudden and unexpected, at such a young and tender age (just barely past the warranty expiration date!) made me too feel weaker—and weakened. A memento mori of sorts, a reminder of my own finitude as a person and a writer in the twenty-first century. It brought to mind an inconvenient reality: every bit of writing I have done for years now—essays, random notes and ideas, articles, books finished and books in progress—all of it exists only in digital form, none of it on paper, except for the book that is in print.
And yet, it turns out, the mysterious Cloud to which all my writing uploads itself automatically whenever the internet in my house is functioning properly, backed up everything—almost. I only lost a single essay. Not bad, one could say, all things considered. A relief, indeed, yet one that inspires terrifying thoughts as well. For what is this Cloud anyway? Unseen yet out there, working behind the scenes, gathering our innermost thoughts, word by word, sentence by sentence, sometimes saving files as duplicates (why?), and on occasion, as with that one essay I lost, not at all (also, why?). There it is, working even now, its tiny icon on the right-side bar at the bottom of my screen. Ominously, it is “saving” my work. But does this work need to be saved?
That ours is a digital world, we take for granted, to the point that no thinking of it is necessary. Why bother thinking about just how this process even works, all to make the writing and dissemination of ideas possible. Isn’t it enough that it does? But there is something strangely transhumanist in this approach to writing and the intellectual life. In considering that computer’s demise, I realized that both my laptop and the Cloud have become strange enhancements of my physical body and mind. We even speak of a machine’s memory that contains our own. Its speed, scientifically measured, somehow becomes the extension of our own finite, much slower brains. Its power and memory, capable of containing entire books in a way that our brains most assuredly cannot, is where all our words, once typed physically by our own hands, dwell in storage.
After all, I can never keep track of all my ideas alone, so there they are, offloaded to an external entity. There is even a file creatively named “Ideas”—a list of random ideas that come to mind, things I might wish to explore, research, and maybe write about someday, should I ever remember that they exist. And then there are various experimental files, pieces I might have started and didn’t get to finish, for whatever reason. Sometimes, among my very own files, I might read something, and not even recollect writing it.
So many words. Not all of them great or good. And yet, they are preserved forever—or for as long as the Cloud exists and allows me access. Should it ever die, a heavy death that will be, indeed—a death to elicit many collective groans from the writerly community worldwide. But why think of such things? Surely its health is secure.
I am reminded, by contrast, of the fragility of the works and the words of authors I study—most of them two-thousand or more years removed. Take Vergil, for instance. Rumored to have composed no more than two verse lines a day, he was so disappointed at the end of his life by The Aeneid, that he ordered it to be burned (it wasn’t—but what a close call!). Or think of the minuscule proportion of Greek tragedy or Roman drama that has survived antiquity. One might note the loss of most of Greek lyric poetry—what’s come down to us is mostly fragments quoted by later authors. Or such extraordinary survivals as Tacitus’ Histories, of which only the first five books survived—and all in a single manuscript to boot, which also preserved the only copy of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, the only Roman novel to survive complete. Reasons to be thankful for Medieval monasteries and their diligent monks.
But perhaps the truth has always been this: to write is to be faced with one’s limitations, for no writer can remember all that she has written. Epic bards of the Homeric age, at least, could improvise, making each recitation different from the one before. To set words to paper or to entrust them to that mysterious Cloud, by contrast, means admitting defeat, finitude, and the need for help. Not by my strength alone, not by my memory alone will this book be done.
Still, it may be machines and technology that make the preservation of our ideas possible in this day and age, but it is still love of people—these beautiful, loud, wild people—that inspires our ideas to begin with; that drives us to live, to write, to rejoice.