Leaving a long term relationship, you find yourself standing on the precipice of a life yet unlived; all of a sudden the accumulated trinkets and tchotchkes of your life together exist only to mock you in your unspoken grief. There’s no better time to get into getting rid of stuff.
After she emptied our house of all that she wanted, I emptied it a second time, of everything that we had grown to want together. I embraced the spartan wisdom of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up – the self help manual de rigueur for people who want to want less. Like a barren arctic island basking in my daily hour of sunlight, I proudly embraced an aesthetic of Scandinavian noir-chic, telling anyone within earshot that the drab palette and multiple timber-veneer Arkelstorp side tables were the trappings of a new and more mature me, a me that was as comfortable owning six oversized beige floor lamps and playing at underwear origami as I was being alone.
A brutalist of the inner world, Kondo imagines a life made better for being purposeful in its scantness – a message that does not bode well for the abode of one married to their clutter, but I latch on to her philosophy hook, line and sinker. I fold each of my socks, throw away projects that sit half finished, and appraise the emotional bond I share with my cutlery. I begin to feel like maybe it’s actually working. Minimalism feels like a scam until you’re in on it, and isn’t that what scams are all about now?
But for all the physical detritus in our orbit, what exists on our computers is vaster and more vague; a digital footprint compressed deep. When I look at a shelf, I can see an object and ascertain if it belongs in my life (or ‘sparks joy’) any longer, and remove it if not. I struggle far more when that physical feedback no longer exists. There isn’t a guidebook for emotional digital minimalism; no one tells you how to hold a file in your hand, to embrace a 100kB photograph, to evaluate the joy of a ten-year text-message history.
We all curate ourselves on the internet – but we are increasingly sold the unassailable notion that behind the scenes no such maintenance is required.
It’s been estimated that the trillions of electrons that make up the entire internet weigh about fifty grams, around half the weight of a pack of cards. But what about the emotional weight of keeping terabytes of photographs you took of someone while you loved them? What was the feeling of deleting them? More than anything, I felt the need to find out.
We all curate ourselves on the internet, whether you’re an aspiring influencer, KonMari-ing your Twitter followers, or demanding the ‘right to be forgotten’; but we are increasingly sold the unassailable notion that behind the scenes no such maintenance is required. The cloud is infinite, a fluffy Sunday-school afterlife for our digital debris. Will Newman writes of the ‘lack of coincidence that server farms look like self-storage facilities’, not unlike those we see on TV, hacked open by the highest bidder, guts strewn and picked through like an autopsy. Google promises me more space than I could once even fathom, Dropbox will allocate me huge tracts of land on their digital acreage, and Apple pinky swears that every blurry photo of a dog, cloud or my pink, bared arse will remain safe forever, as long as I cough up to keep their labyrinthine server compound spinning.
It wasn’t always this way. I think back to the early days of the internet, when the trappings of cyberpunk felt like a practical inevitability, when booting up felt like entering a distinctly separate world; devoid of a fixed identity, inherently unstable. I poured years into forums, sites and servers that can’t even ping back in a whisper today, run from the bedroom floor of a benevolent moderator until they couldn’t keep the lights on any longer. They warned us in school of the bad people online, but never warned of the thrill of being the bad people ourselves. That anonymity and fragility was part of their allure, knowing that it would all end – everything online always did.
I yearn for the ease of plugging in; I dream of an array of sockets in the back of my neck, my arms, my thighs; grappling with myself in my sleep, leaving blue bruises like chip thin implants slipped under the epidermis. I fuck in a 256-colour palette, an erotic dialup fantasy revealed line by line. I wish it were so easy to feel. I am wearing dark glasses indoors, lit by cathode rays; I say ‘I’m in’, by which I mean gloved and to the wrist.
I poured years into forums, sites and servers that can’t even ping back in a whisper today. That anonymity and fragility was part of their allure.
Instead, I begin a pilgrimage. Every photo ever taken, every file saved; my digital history up for appraisal. Years of work and pleasure have become a formless sweater, taking months to unravel, each day finding myself tugging ever tighter in the cold. What at the start is a careful evaluation, trying to consider each file as I had my teaspoons and shower gel, grows increasingly fast and unfeeling. In one marathon session, equipment tests and engagement parties alike flick past in seconds, as I pick out the smattering of photos deemed worthy, before transferring the rest into a growing folder of refuse.
I tell all my friends about this journey, and their responses vary wildly. Some find my task Sisyphean but fascinating, regarding the topic in the way one would a new juice cleanse or a friend’s boyfriend’s new podcast. Others do not understand, and openly revel in the automaticity of the cloud. Not making decisions, they say, is how they find the time to make other, more important decisions. Mostly they tell me that they wouldn’t have the time, with the kind of look that betrays their concern that I do.
One friend tells me of how once, in the days before Facebook, she lost a hard drive containing the entire photographic history of her and an ex; how it felt like a cleaving, a blade cutting clean through tender flesh. This sort of thing could never happen nowadays, she muses, and I think of all that data I have no control over. Somewhere out there, pinging off a distant cloud, is the first time I met you, the first time I blurted out I love you, the first time you saw my tits. Somewhere too is the last thing you ever said to me, preserved until the end of time, or until the ad revenue runs dry.
I realise too, as the months drag on, that this process is framing and changing how I interact with the content that I create and curate now. Meals are prepared and eaten unphotographed; conversations carry on with no one sneaking their phones for posterity; I watch sunsets fade into darkness until the night chill sends me indoors, my phone unthinkingly left atop one of my five Arkelstorps. My memory has never been good, but I make more room in my head for moments that feel significant, and the moments I do share with people are more valuable in turn.
Somewhere out there, pinging off a distant cloud, is the first time I said I love you, preserved until the end of time, or until the ad revenue runs dry.
One day I realise there are no more files to sort through, no more junk data, and all that’s left is one big folder full of all those split-second decisions. I’m back at the beginning, trying to quantify what this means, what this feels like. The boxes have slowly emptied out of the rental we once shared, the last of her self-help books ready to take on a new life outside of this ghost house, and yet this folder lingers, like it’s waiting for me to commit. Then, on a whim, it’s time. There is no more use in deliberating, and I move to delete it.
I pause, cursor hovered over the trash as though I’m holding these fifty thousand-odd photographs cupped in my hands. It is finally tangible. It feels like this deserves some kind of ritual, or a moment of peace. I wait to experience anything in this moment, but there’s nothing there, so I just let go. Right click, Empty Trash; taking a final leaf from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, before I give it away too.