A few days ago, I accidentally deleted a batch of saved games. Collectively they represented a couple hundred hours' worth of time spent playing a dozen or more games. Years of hard-won progress, gone in the blink of an eye. It started when my sister found my lost Nintendo 3DS. I'd unknowingly left it at her house in California back in June. When I returned home and discovered it missing from my backpack, I figured I'd left it on the plane or something. I thought it was gone for good. I called Nintendo up and re-activated my account on an older 3DS, then got on with my life.
A couple of months later, my sister found my wayward handheld wedged at the foot of her guest bed and shipped it back to me. When I re-activated it, I found I couldn't re-link my account without formatting the device. I did so, and lost every save for every downloadable 3DS game I'd ever played. My Fire Emblem characters? Gone. My Zelda saves? Done for. Most heartbreaking of all: My hundreds of StreetPass Miis and my Puzzle Swap progress all vanished in the blink of an eye.
As I was reinitialising my 3DS, I decided I was also going to do a clean install of Windows 10. One good data purge deserves another, right? I backed up my documents folder, which holds any game saves that might not be stored in the Steam cloud. I reinstalled Windows, then immediately realised I'd forgotten to backup my Dark Souls 3 save, a safeguard that requires a distinct and arcane procedure. Whoops. There goes my level 100+ character, which I built over about 65 hours with the game earlier this year. Poof.
The older I get, the faster my reaction to this kind of thing pivots from intense anguish to total acceptance. I took about five minutes to process the loss, particularly of my Dark Souls save. I thought about all the time I'd spent repeating level after level to grow my character, about the unique and rare items I'd have to re-find and re-forge. I swallowed hard and realised I wasn't going to be able to play or write about the first expansion in October. Then I put it away. This shit happens. It's happened before, and it will happen again.
If there was a time when I was particularly fazed by losing digital stuff, I don't remember it. I'm in my 30s, and I've lost a spectacular amount of data over the years. I've lost drafts of articles I've since re-written from scratch and published, and I've lost drafts of articles that never saw the light of day. I'm a musician, and I've lost ancient demo recordings and lyrics to songs I never completed. I've lost recordings of interviews that I only partially transcribed, and transcriptions that I never published. I've lost video game saves, and screenshots, and saved gameplay footage. Don't even get me started on digital photos and videos.
What a tenuous attachment we have to our digital selves! Year after year we leave behind an increasingly intricate digital imprint. The more data we accumulate, the more of it quietly goes missing. We shed megabytes like we shed hair follicles and dead skin cells; our oldest digital records fade like the long-term memory globes in Inside Out. That video file… those photos from some wedding… an audio note whispered at 3:00AM… an ancient exchange of text messages. Most of the time we don't even realise they're gone.
Facebook, Google and Apple ask us to entrust them with the preservation of our digital selves. They offer to save our memories to the cloud, but even their most advanced and expensive services feel inadequate. Where can I preserve the gigabytes of random videos I've shot of my nieces? Where will I store the terabytes of video game footage I've captured over the years? What will I do with the massive recording sessions I've attempted to carry from computer to computer? How can I hope to organise all this stuff when I can't even remember what half of it is?
Video game saves are a little different from lost text messages, missing musical recordings or incompatible word processing documents. They record where we've been in a digital world but they also provide a waypoint. They're the station farthest out, where we go to hop back on the train. Losing a save can make it harder to go back, but it can also offer the opportunity for a fresh start. You can make different choices this time; you can begin anew.
In my apartment I have a stack of old hard drives. A couple are corrupted or otherwise broken, or they require a firewire connection or some other outmoded connection. I could figure out how to extract their data — there are services for that sort of thing — but where would I put it all even if I did? Each time I grow my storage capability, I simply push the edge farther out from the centre. Bits and bytes never stop tumbling out into the abyss, I just notice them less. They're so far away that I can't even see them.
I can't hold on to all this data. Past a certain point, the only rational response is the acceptance of its sometimes gradual and sometimes sudden disappearance. Whatever I may have lost, I haven't lost the experience of creating it. I can play the game again fresh. I can write the song or the article a different way. I can relive the memory with people who were there. Whatever it was, I can make it again.
In that way, my digital self will always remain separate from my real self. It's an echo that will only fade without the real me to perpetuate it. That's terrifying, but also freeing.