If we don't stop worrying about the digital world, the real world will leave us behind

All those things you leave in your digital wake – are they really so important? All those thousands of selfies, those Twitter conversations, the unnecessary office emails?

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I watch the white-water rafting guide tuck my little camera into his waterproof pouch as we teeter terrifyingly on a precipitous pile of rocks in the middle of a wide, energetic river in Costa Rica. This is our summer holiday and I really don’t want all my pictures to end up in some quasi-Amazonian grave.

Or, indeed, all the other pictures that I haven’t yet got around to putting into an album. Because I am of the generation which is halfway between digital and analogue; we are wired up, of course, but still fond of the intimate, singular piece of information – a handwritten love letter, a scribbled address, a 6x8 photograph. Caught between a cloud and a hard place, one might say.

So I still like to take shots on an actual camera, and, while a lot of my pictures are also on my smartphone and various social media channels, there are a bunch still doing that old thing of only existing in one version, in one place. If they show enough pedigree, they will end up in a frame or stuck in a photo album. Which is worrying when you are about to go down a series of rapids with a camera in tow.

It’s also rather consoling. The news that a Google data centre in Belgium was struck four times by lightning, causing some people to lose all their files, although they were reportedly able to retrieve their lost data via back-up systems, will nevertheless send shivers across everyone whose life is almost entirely paper-free; they have no need for phone books, picture albums, diaries, pens and paper. Everything that defines them as individuals – and their entire history – is digitised and held in safety by Google.

Except when lightning strikes. Apparently the strike doesn’t even need to hit the same part of the building to cause problems. If it reaches a cable, even one kilometre off, the shock zips straight to the centre, fuses all the wires and there go all your wedding photos. Or your business accounts. Your contracts, phone numbers, emails and the rest.

A cloudburst, raining on your precious hinterland. For some, this could be a rather merciful release. “I don’t like the fact you never can fully erase everything,” a lawyer friend of mine admitted when I asked him about the scary notion of a dissolving digital history. “I think it’s ghastly having everything about you backed up for ever and ever.”

Indeed, I suspect the 37 million members of the infamous Ashley Madison dating site might be energetically praying that their details are encrypted within the benighted Belgian Google warehouse and zapped for all time. Even if you aren’t an Ashley Madison client, it allows the option of a second chance. Who wants to be reminded of that embarrassing argument you had on Twitter, those awful Freshers’ Week photos, or that moment when you cried during a white-water rafting episode? (Yes. It was so).

But our lives have been engulfed by the digital. My children don’t know what a phone book is. But if we are going to throw all our diaries and filing cabinets away, the alternative must be trustworthy. Otherwise, what is the point? If we don’t believe the cloud is safe, we will end up putting everything firstly online and secondly in pen and ink, like those people who insist on rinsing every plate before putting it in the dishwasher.

There is, of course, another way. What if we decide not to bother, too much, about storing our entire electronic footprint in perpetuity? There’s no need to shun being online, but we need not be bound by it, either.


All those things you leave in your digital wake – are they really so important? All those thousands of selfies, those Twitter conversations, the Instagram shares and the unnecessary office emails?

You are sent an email from work; you act upon it. Does it need to be held in the modern equivalent of the Giant Pyramids of Giza? Presuming you’re not the Prime Minister, who going inspect your email trail? Would it really matter if your online nattering went up in a puff of lightning-induced smoke? Only the ferociously egoistic would suggest it would.

I sense that if we were all a bit less focused on the hoarding of every single byte of online data in our past, then perhaps we would pay more attention to our present, and our future.