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An old smartphone is a time capsule you never knew you were filling

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April 25th, 2017

old phone

A couple of weeks ago, I went home for the weekend, and, finding myself stranded in my childhood bedroom, began rooting through the drawers of my old desk like a nostalgic hog. Among the detritus of my teenage years (a sediment of empty lighters, old CDs, and books of poetry that would thrill the heart of any would-be blackmailer) I found something unexpected: my first “proper” smartphone, an eight-year-old HTC Hero that saw me through most of university.

I was incredibly proud of this phone when I bought it, and it still retained all its old charm. It has a chin! And a trackball! And it sits so neatly in the hand unlike our modern-day wafers of glass and metal! Straight away, I plugged it in to charge. With its 528 MHz processor and 288 MB of RAM, it took a while to chug, slowly though Android 1.5 Cupcake, but once it did, I didn’t just have my old phone back, I had all my memories, too.

The date on the phone hadn’t been changed for five years, and neither had its contents. There were text messages organizing nights out long forgotten; photos of friends I haven’t spoken to in years; and old playlists full of songs that once thrilled me, but now seem little more than throwbacks. Browsing through the phone’s contents I felt like I was exploring the life of a video game non-player character. “This is some incredible world-building,” I thought, “the way it’s all so believably cringe-worthy. Did this guy really just end a text to his crush with the sign-off ‘ROFLMAOXOXO’?”

Usually I’m all for this sort of navel-gazing. To give you some idea of my character, know that that under the bed in my same teenage bedroom I have a trio of shoe-boxes labeled “Nostalgia,” volumes I through III. I like to sort my life into lists, and find that this instinct dovetails neatly with the archivist quality of the digital world. I right-click-save-image any pictures art or architecture or food that I like the look of online; and when I delete old tweets, I always grab a copy first. Just in case.

But something about my old HTC felt weird, and eventually I realized the difference. Unlike my shoe boxes — which are curated; their contents whittled down to a few, choice items — my old phone was an inadvertent time capsule. One I had no idea I was filling at the time.

The picture of me it had captured was bracingly if embarrassingly complete, but the longer I spent looking through old texts, the more I felt I was spying on a stranger. If I was a wiser person I might have found something teachable in those old messages; their anxieties and boasts, and apologies and flirtations. And if I were less neurotic, maybe I’d find it funny. Being only myself, I found it strange. I thought: delete all this. You don’t need it any more.

But these sorts of digital caches are commonplace. The world is full of old phones, and old computers and hard drives. On top of these there are the online accounts you’ve already forgotten about, with their data stored unattended in some server rack in middle America. Even if you could hunt down every bit of digital information you personally created, you’d still exist as a silhouette of data, outlined in every interaction and picture stored on friends and families’ phones and computers and tablets. My old HTC had been snooping on me without my realizing, but it was hardly the first.

In the end I just chucked my phone back into the desk to be forgotten for another five years. My future self can deal with my past self, I thought. Just leave me out of it.