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Column: In an age of obsessive documentation, is it still possible to reinvent ourselves?



In the early days of Facebook, one of my high school classmates started posting photos from parties that we had attended back in the 1980s. Until then, I was unaware that these pictures even existed. My classmate scanned them, posted them, then tagged everyone. They were not compromising or embarrassing – they were just pictures of us standing around, looking as bored and awkward as I remember us being. 

For some of my classmates, this might have been a pleasant trip down memory lane. For me it was unsettling, although I couldn’t put my finger on why. 

There are many reasons I’m glad Facebook didn’t exist when I was growing up. I held opinions that I’ve since disavowed. I made jokes that were embarrassing or offensive. Often, I did not take the high road. I accept that I did these things, but mostly I’m glad they are in the past, lodged behind a wall of forgetfulness. I’m glad my permanent record has been allowed to lapse. 

There are many reasons I’m glad Facebook didn’t exist when I was growing up. I held opinions that I’ve since disavowed. I made jokes that were embarrassing or offensive. Often, I did not take the high road.

But what if it hadn’t? What if everything you ever did or said was ready to be called up as evidence, forever? The reappearance of photos from a forgotten part of my life was a sign of a profound change in how we live in the world. It pointed to a future when your past trails behind you like a chain that can never be cut. It signaled the arrival of an era when your history, your mistakes, your poor choices, your party pictures will forever weigh you down.

When I was young, the past disappeared quickly, even inevitably, unless someone made an effort to preserve it. A friend’s dad owned a camcorder and carried a huge backpack full of video equipment. He would run around recording everything; we thought this was absurd. We called him “Captain Video.”

But today we are all Captain Video, gleefully, even recklessly, recording our lives. Maybe it’s progress: It makes us think harder about the things we say and the choices we make, because we know they may be there forever.

But I also wonder if this is why young people are reported to have an obsession with self-improvement that their parents lack: For them, the pressure to be (or to appear to be) their best selves never relents. This may be creating a generation of people who are better behaved, but also more cautious and less willing to make the kinds of mistakes that can help a person grow. To be clear: I’m not talking about committing crimes or serious transgressions. I’m talking about foolishness, youth, identity, phases.

Recently I came across an essay by writer David Quammen titled “The Siph-uncle.” It’s about the nautilus, an ancient, predatory shellfish.

Every month or two, Quammen wrote, the nautilus moves up toward the entrance of its shell, secreting a pearl-like substance called nacre to seal off the chamber behind it. In this wall of pearl, it leaves a small hole for an organ called a siphuncle, through which it moves water in and out of the chambers in order to float up or down. These chambers allow the nautilus to control its path through the ocean in search of prey.

Woven into this natural history is Quammen’s story of his own walled-off past. When he was younger, he was obsessed with William Faulkner, whose books he tried to translate into film scripts. He wrote an unpublishable novel about Faulkner’s death. He even got a job working on a doomed documentary about Faulkner in the writer’s hometown. 

When that job ended, so did that phase of his life. He saw where the Faulknerian path was leading – toward academia – and he turned away. “I evaded the looming Volvo and the corduroy jacket with leather elbows and the unfunny early marriage,” Quammen wrote. So he sealed that phase behind its own wall and went on to become one of the great science writers and essayists of his generation.

The idea of reinventing oneself is one of the core tenets of the modern world, especially the American one. Immigrants came to places such as the United States and Canada to start over, to become someone different, to make a new life. Many of them would never see their homelands again. The same was true for the pioneers who went west. 

Once you crossed the ocean or the Rocky Mountains, you could become someone else. You could leave the past behind.

Until fairly recently, this was still the case for most of us, even if we never left our hometowns: Our past was there, but we could bring it to the surface or let it sink as needed. We could try on new identities, new lives, new ideas, new selves and know that we might also grow out of them. If you wanted to leave your old self behind, you could move to Alaska. But really, all you had to do was wait. 

An example: When I was in my 20s, I was a die-hard “anarcho-syndicalist” and an acolyte of linguist and political writer Noam Chomsky. I read endlessly about the Spanish Civil War and wrote about “industrial democracy.” I dreamed of a world where we all were free to make the good choices we would surely make if there were no government. Now I find those beliefs slightly embarrassing, but I am not forced to relive them every day. Instead, I am free to look back on my younger self with a mixture of mortification and compassion. 

The chambers of our lives are never as neat as those of the nautilus. And often it’s only when we’re on the other side that their worth becomes clear. That’s when we can hold them up and inspect them like fossils from our personal evolution. 

I have changed my mind many times about many things. I have always believed that we can learn from our mistakes, that we can grow, that we can move on. I think that’s why seeing those old photos on Facebook was so unsettling. The implication was that I was still that person. And in a sense that was true. But in another sense, it was not. 

For people whose youth predates the internet, our pasts may no longer remain safely behind the walls we’ve built. Younger people may never get to build those walls in the first place. The idea of a many-chambered life now seems as prehistoric as the nautilus.  

We all have to find a way to live in a world where the past is ever-present, where our online lives become our permanent record – the one that employers, colleges, friends, lovers, neighbors, children, and even the law can sift through to see who we were, regardless of who we are. Even if I delete my account, somewhere, on a server beyond my control, my past lives on. 

Some days all this makes me want to run for the hills. Instead, I’m trying to learn to accept the phases I’ve gone through and the people I’ve been. And I am trying to make the same allowance for those around me – the people they’ve been and the people they might still become. Because we all need room to grow, to change, and to chart our own course through these waters we are swimming in together.

• Frank Bures is the author of The Geography of Madness. He recently wrote about the Great Western Trail for The Rotarian.