Forever is composed of nows. – Emily Dickinson
Let’s face it; we’re all struggling to control the use of this addictive substance called technology. I was most aware of it recently during a news program about modern musicians who’ve started to ban cell phones and videos from their performances. The young guitarist being interviewed for the show moaned that he was sick of watching a sea of cell phones waving at him from the audience when he starts to sing. Can’t they just enjoy the moment? he muttered. After all, they’re seeing something live that their friends watching the videos can’t experience. Isn’t that unique involvement enough to make them put the cell phones away?
I’ve been thinking a lot about live performance, believing it will become one of the most rare, treasured and sought-after pleasures in our future world of digitized thrill-seeking. There is nothing like the jolt to your neurons delivered by a live performance. And yet…it was one of my favorite Cloud computing sites, Dropbox, that brought home the unexpected thrill of a recorded, catalogued and well preserved personal connection, making me understand how human beings can touch us through time ‘live and in person’ with the aid of technology.
My son had scanned boxes of photographs from albums stored and long forgotten in our basement of a big house I sold after my husband died a few years ago. Wishing to spark the interest of others of his own generation and future ones as well, my son uploaded them to Dropbox and made the files accessible to the rest of the family all over the world. We could then jump in with labels and comments, as the older generation clearly had the knowledge to identify the most arcane entries. In this process, he recently discovered the baby book of his father’s first five years on earth, dutifully catalogued by his mother.
That book of birthdays finally made it into Dropbox a few weeks ago, and although I’m not ordinarily stimulated by personal photographs, (Facebook and Instagram bore me to tears), and lack the gossip gene that so many have and exploit as a ‘desire for connection’, I felt duty-bound to review my son’s latest online submission. He asked me to clarify names, places and relationships, and I wanted to support the effort he’d made to present these documents in an orderly fashion for future generations. But I had no warning of what an impact the Dropbox album would have on me as I brought up those pictures of my husband from 6 months to 6 years. It wasn’t the sight of him as a child, or the lineup of his pets that acted as a catalyst for my memory. Nor did the background locals I’d known from my own childhood do much to stimulate or intrigue me.
The punch to my gut came in the form of his mother’s handwriting on the pictures, as they moved from the birth of her first son through his early childhood. I recognized that hand as if she sat beside me writing out a shopping list, or a letter to one of her friends in California. I know that cursive as if it was her voice. Nothing else, not even the picture of her in her twenties looking happy and beautiful on a day at the beach could bring back that sense of her in the room with me. Her hand on the page brought her alive, and the unique quality of her human touch in the form of pen and ink reminded me of how important the live representation is to our experience. It raised the same shiver of thrill I get looking at Alexander Hamilton’s signature on book reservations at my library, or a draft of one of Edith Wharton’s novels in her own hand. That imprint of the human touch is more thrilling than any image transferred to a page with light through a lens or video trapped in an iPhone and uploaded to Facebook. Nothing takes the place of someone live and in person. But truthfully, if it weren’t for ‘The Cloud’ technology, these records might well disappear in the future. One’s own hand can be shared with so many more when technology brings us together the right way.