Serendipitous Digital Memories

Recently I found my old cell phone, which was misplaced for two years. But a bigger surprise than finding the phone was discovering what was left inside.

The phone was inoperative for two years, but once charged — voilà, it displayed all of my old text messages, faithfully preserved.

Great, have a safe trip. Everything is fine here, both of us are doing good. Enjoy, talk  to you soon! Kiss x 2

This text message, dated September 20, 2010, at 9:07 a.m., was a drop in the digital communication bucket at the time it was created. I had received 26 other text messages that day, and I was only one among millions of people who exchanged millions of text messages on that particular date.

Short and short-lived, text messages usually accomplish what Roman Jakobson called referential and phatic functions in communication. We commonly use them either to convey brief pieces of information, or simply to stay in touch. Written but evanescent, as a good example of Ong’s secondary orality, text messages occupy very small pieces of both our digital and physical memories. We write, read, and delete them fast.

Luckily, digital technologies sometimes suspend their judgment about what should end as digital trash.

That was the case with my old cell phone.

The messages my cell phone preserved were written and sent by my parents. During the time the cell phone went missing, they both passed away. My father suffered a sudden stroke a month after the above-quoted message had been sent; my mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness shortly after, and passed away a year later.

Like an earthquake, these abrupt deaths brought sweeping turmoil. The time spent in-between hospitals and burial grounds left little time for reflection, let alone for preservation of memories.

Photos were there; fine. Some videos too; fine. But it was that fleeting, low-key, everyday communication that I missed the most. Big moments we are trying to preserve are not the ones that really matter in the end, I got to realize; it is those small, warm, chit-chatty moments that form the fabrics of our lives.

And that was exactly what my old cell phone provided me with when it miraculously reappeared. Small, casual text messages brought back to me the genuine, everyday voices of my parents. Accidentally preserved, they became one of my most precious remembrances.

Once I discovered them, I took all possible measures to archive them. Those text messages are now stored at several cell phones, hard disks, and cloud spaces. But it was only by luck that I got the second chance to preserve them, and to really grasp new dimensions that personal digital archiving can bring to our memory practices.

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