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Memory Error Illustration by Spencer Ashley.

Memory Error

Stockpiling broken belongings and useless screenshots can be a way to battle assimilation, until the digital clutter becomes a problem.

The canvas backpack I used as a carry-on for my flight from China lies unused and broken on the closet floor of my North York apartment. When its red pockets and inner depth are at capacity, it can fit a clarinet, two binders, a lunch bag, an umbrella, a water bottle and a few handfuls of knick-knacks. I came to this country with that bag on my shoulders at the precipice between nine and ten years old, to help me transport my entire life from Jiangmen to Vancouver. It’s one of the few things I brought with me from a place I can no longer remember with any clarity.

For nine years, that backpack was my companion as I shuttled from ESL classes and field trips to school libraries and university lectures. It stuck with me through moves between Vancouver, Burnaby, Markham and London. I attached keychains but kept it free of pins, because I couldn’t bear to puncture the precious fabric. A strap finally broke off one afternoon as I was on my way to a first-year physics lecture at Western University. It felt like the bag telling me, “You’ve assimilated enough. It’s time to let me go.” Dejected, I got a new bag, but never threw the old one out. It was bought brand new for the flight that split my life into before and after; like me, it had started off in China, but had little memory of it. Throwing away one of my few links to where I was born would be like deliberately forgetting my roots. And you just don’t do that.

So I’m still dragging the bag around with me. I can’t get rid of it, even though it’s been effectively useless for the past decade. Some days, it riddles me with guilt. That broken strap must ache. It takes up valuable space in my tiny apartment. But I can’t give it up.

Memories can be fickle. To get past their faultiness, our culture has elected our possessions as substitutes for remembering who we are. Over the years, I’ve kept many other mundane treasures that help me piece together the trajectory of my life: a pencil case that a friend gave me in eighth grade, a binder filled with old school assignments, a cardboard box stuffed with decades-old cards. As we entered the digital era, and our devices and apps encouraged the hoarding of mountains of digital evidence to make sense of our lives, my tendency toward accumulation shifted from the physical to the virtual; now, along with my backpack and pencil cases, I have tens of thousands of photos and screenshots saved across my devices, each of them a clue about my existence.

I am not alone in my collection of cloud-based clutter. “Digital hoarding,” a recently and loosely defined subset of hoarding disorder in which people struggle to let go of their accumulated digital files, is a growing phenomenon. We have long known that the things we own come to form part of our identities, but research shows that people increasingly attach this sense of self to their digital possessions as well. To a degree, this is normal—we all keep photos to remind us of good times, or occasionally indulge in a scroll through a text conversation with an old friend—but digital hoarding is characterized by anxiety and overwhelm, an inability to let go of even the most useless digital clutter. As we stash away more and more virtual stuff, every old screenshot, duplicate photo and text message become more and more laden with emotional meaning, leading us to pile them up indefinitely.  With the storage capacity of our smartphones constantly increasing, and ever-expanding cheap space in the cloud, our tech is happy to assist us in this quest. 

Hoarding disorder is defined by a deep resistance to throwing your possessions out, regardless of their value, utility or impact on your life. Previously understood as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), hoarding became its own standalone mental health diagnosis when it was added to the DSM-5 in 2013. This new categorization came after a slew of hoarding-themed reality TV shows like Hoarders littered the cultural landscape, providing audiences with a frequently exploitative and voyeuristic window into the lives of sufferers. But medical authorities were watching, too, and saw logic in the chaos: it was possible, they believed, to have compulsions around hoarding without other OCD symptoms. The reasons why we hoard are varied and complex, but the impulse to keep everything, regardless of its value, is often connected with general and economic anxiety, fear, loss and grief. Some studies show that the onset of hoarding is preceded by some sort of traumatic event or a period of intense stress. It’s unsurprising, then, that hoarding is often associated with immigration and displacement—it’s an understandable response to an existence in which security is scarce. In an article for the Huffington Post, Deborah Yewande Bankole, a second-generation Nigerian-British woman, wrote that her mother’s “view on disposing [of] things was the same as her view on skipping church: non-negotiable.” Her belongings, cluttered as they seemed, gave her a sense of stability and identity.

Digital hoarding speaks to that same impulse—the need to keep every small piece of your world intact. I can’t tell you what I was doing on December 2, 2003, the beginning of my last winter in China. But with a little scrolling, I can tell you that on December 2, 2018, I had chili for dinner, in a square baking dish with two slices of buttered French bread. I was wearing a maroon crewneck with my high school emblem screen-printed in white, and I was still awake at 2:43 AM when the world crossed into December 3. That version of me is memorialized in a photo I sent to my long-distance boyfriend at the time, my face stretched between each corner of the screen.

On March 20, 2019, a shard of glass broke off my French press while I was making a morning coffee. At 7:48 PM on April 15, 2020, I finished a watercolour painting of flowers. May 19, 2021, shortly before 5 PM, I bought a cone from an ice cream truck while walking around my neighbourhood. On June 15, 2022, I pulled a freshly-baked loaf of no-knead milk bread out of my oven as the afternoon came to a close. In the span of two decades, my life transformed from being largely undocumented to being rigorously, almost obnoxiously, accounted for.

My parents grew up in the southern Chinese countryside in the eighties. Their lives were lived in an entirely different context to mine; they ran on mud roads and waded into ponds. They were sent to fetch water from wells and joked about how difficult it was to get the last precious drops with their limited tools. My dad liked to kid that he hadn’t known what a plastic bag was before he met my mother. I take their stories at face value. I’ve never asked to see photos, because I know there are none.

When we uprooted our lives in 2004, we brought everything we needed with us, but it has never felt like enough. I was always a sentimental child, but now I hold onto things with an iron grip, even if it’s a backpack that no longer works, or a photo on my phone that I keep but don’t look at. Every time I squirrel away another digital file—a photograph, a text conversation, a screenshot—I am attempting to hold onto pieces of the after portion of my life, to compensate for the lack of before. With every pixel, I remind myself that I exist.

My obsession with keeping digital records started with a corrupted USB. I went to the US with my family during a blistering summer in 2009. We visited the White House in Washington, DC, passed by t-shirt vendors on the streets of New York and took photos with the Statue of Liberty with a digital point-and-shoot, later printing a handful of these scenes to keep in an album. One of them was of me—smiling at the camera but with eyes pinched in the sun, strands of hair strewn gracefully across my face despite the Atlantic wind—and it was one of the best photos that had been taken of me at the time. I gave it away to a high-school boyfriend in a fit of puppy love. Years later, I wanted to reprint it, but when I tried to access the files, I got an error message. Every single image was corrupted and couldn’t be opened.

When I tried instead to scroll through my memories of that trip, I found that those, too, seemed to be unreadable. All I recalled were fragments: the sweltering heat, the rush of cool ocean at a New Jersey beach, guards yelling at tourists on the White House lawn. Without the photos, there was no way for me to confirm or deny what had happened beyond corroborating with my family. But memories are not trustworthy. I remembered that broken backpack as being black and red until I really looked at it. In reality, it’s been grey and red all along.

There are currently over 33,965 photos and close to 2,000 videos in my phone’s photo library, as well as many others transferred from the cloud to my hard drive. I have thousands of photos of myself that I will never delete, no matter how unflattering, blurry or identical they may be. My phone is filled with old conversations with people who will never again be in my life—my landlord from when I lived in Windsor five years ago, old coworkers I haven’t seen since 2017, even rideshare chats with strangers. This digital square footage does not come free: I pay $4.51 per month for extended iCloud space. Though I seldom revisit these files, the thought of deleting them brings a visceral pang of panic. I hover over that “delete” option and a voice in my mind asks, “Are you sure? What if you need to remember what happened?”

Digital hoarding was first named in scientific literature in 2015, when researchers published a case study in the BMJ identifying a new subtype of hoarding disorder. A 47-year-old-man’s days were consumed by taking hundreds of photographs, and then spending three to five hours organizing the digital files, which he reported as causing him significant distress. He struggled to delete a single photo, even if they were similar, and had filled up eight external hard drives with his compulsive photography. The amount of time that he felt forced to dedicate to organizing his digital life left him with little time to go outside or clean. He was already suffering from regular hoarding disorder, leading him to accumulate paperwork and bike parts in his house, while image files cluttered up his digital storage, negatively impacting his daily functioning (a key factor in how a “disorder” is defined).

My day-to-day life isn’t meaningfully affected by the tens of thousands of photos that I cart around with me, so I probably don’t meet any diagnostic criteria for digital hoarding—but I can see myself in this man. There’s nothing healthy about my refusal to delete a screenshot of a four-year-old BuzzFeed quiz result informing me which Disney princess lines up with my snack preferences. I often find myself gingerly picking through extraneous apps and screenshots in a desperate search for storage, flinching each time I click delete. It’s not clear in existing research whether digital hoarding can develop into a diagnosis for people who do not have a preexisting hoarding disorder, but it’s certain that the phenomenon is likely to increase as we continue to live digitally. Our phones now come with the capacity for hundreds of gigabytes of storage, and providers offer easy solutions for exceeding limits. This convenience can hide the way that tech companies are essentially exploiting our impulse toward remembering, pointing us toward digital storage units rather than a garbage can. Authors of the 2015 paper noted that the “unrestricted possibilities for saving [files] and the fear of losing important data [can lead to] to disorganization and loss of perspective [and] so-called digital cluttering,” regardless of whether it is pathological.

In 2018, researchers in British Columbia looked at the distinction between digital hoarding and “data minimalism,” the practice of keeping as little data as possible through regular decluttering. One interviewee, a mother, held on to thousands of photos of her children in an attempt to crystallize her memories and hold on to her now-adolescent children’s youth. “That’s all I got left, in some sense,” she told the researchers. “It’s an attempt to try and hold onto things, in spite of the passing of time.” Her words echo my own motivations. I need photos to anchor my constantly-warping memories.

My brain’s default setting is to recall the bad times. I am not the only one: we are hard-wired to remember difficult and traumatic events more clearly than the positive. It’s thought to be an evolutionary mechanism—remembering danger was useful for our ancestors—but it can make the brain a hostile place. I’m sure that I had good times at university, but almost everything I recall from the years I spent earning my undergraduate degree is tinged with negativity. I remember crossing the street and wondering about what it would be like to get hit by a passing car. I remember waking up after Savasana in yoga class during a freezing, sapphire-blue February, wondering how I was still so sad when the world could be so beautiful. I remember the single Eggo waffle drizzled with honey that I’d eat every day for breakfast, which now feels like the taste of depression.

Until I’m confronted with tangible proof in happy photographs and Facebook memories, those years could be painted with one broad stroke of existential crisis. But there were snapshots of joy among the bad. I lived them, even if I don’t always remember. Once, I found a perfect red maple leaf on campus between classes. I took my thrifted skates to an indoor rink with a friend, where I held onto her hand and laughed and screamed. My keepsakes of these incidents, saved to my phone, are reminders that there were sparkling moments of happiness amidst the struggle.

I have peers my age who have thousands of childhood photos, while I only have about fifty from birth all the way to immigration. Once, I cried after attending a wedding because the photo montage of the happy couple’s well-documented early lives made me feel as though I had no history. My inability to remember details from those early days is a knife in my chest. I know people who can visit their childhood home and find their  life story entirely preserved within those four walls, but mine is a half-ripped page from a book, ink faded by the sun. It’s a stupid thing to be concerned about, because I’m here, aren’t I? I’ve made it to the end of my twenties, documentation or not—that should be good enough. But I continue to be desperate for records, for evidence of every good and bad moment in my life, so that I can be absolutely sure that they happened. So that I can trust them.

I fit the archetype of an eldest immigrant daughter. What this means is that I can be stubbornly independent; I hide everything from my parents, and I also have a raging control issue. It’s okay, I’m open about it.

This need for control is exacerbated by my demand for evidence of even the most fleeting moments. It’s as if my brain has taken on the role of a documentary filmmaker, desperate to churn out a product that can accurately and objectively depict my life, independent from the memories that are so susceptible to corruption. I want to revisit these photographs and come away feeling nothing but a strong and true emotional connection to the person in them, without the complication of a faulty memory and depressive tendencies.

Every now and then, I am swept up by the desire to look up Jiangmen on Google Street View, hoping to find traces of my hometown, though I know not much is available. I flip through the user-uploaded photos of the public square near my childhood home, only to come away disappointed. Recently I realized that instead of Google, I should have been using Baidu, the Chinese search engine. As I clicked through its Street View equivalent, I came away bawling. I held onto my backpack, my mother tongue and my earliest childhood memories so tightly, yet the place I once lived looked so foreign. I had spent so much time perfecting my English and learning the customs of this new life that I didn’t pay enough attention to remembering the place I came from. Now, my old home is as strange as somewhere I’ve never been.

In Canada, there is little evidence of how I slowly shed the layers of myself until I became indistinguishable from my peers who were born and raised in this country. There are no records of those trips to the library where I learned to play Neopets, no home videos of my early family life. I know that they happened, but those experiences not being documented makes me feel robbed.

As I’ve grown older and cameras have become ubiquitous, the desire to capture these moments has increased. Every beautiful day must be experienced to its fullest, even if my body is running on five hours of sleep. Every glorious sunset must be witnessed and documented, so that it hasn’t gone to waste. Unlike those childhood days that flowed away like water, now I want to keep tabs on everything, because not doing so feels like asking to forget, and forgetting feels like losing control. Studies have found that the very act of taking photographs may actually erode the ability to remember things, because people rely on the camera to do the work. So where does that leave me? If time passes me by without leaving definitive marks, does it matter?

I think about what I was doing back before the analog made way for the digital, when smartphones did not exist and I only accessed the internet on Sunday mornings on the family computer. I used to move through time without  an awareness of it moving through me. I went to class. I was angry. I doodled. I watched television. I daydreamed and built stories in my mind. I left days upon days undocumented—not a trace of them to be found now. I let seconds and minutes drift into the breeze and I was fine with it.

Over the years, I have tried to become less obsessive with my documentative tendencies. More and more, it has felt like an ugly habit I need to kick; it was embarrassing to huddle in a corner on vacation, looking for screenshots and apps to delete to make space for new photos while I was supposed to be enjoying myself. I was taking “pics or it didn’t happen” a little too seriously. Now, at concerts I limit myself to recording only the first minute of a favourite song, rather than placing a screen between my eyes and what I paid to experience. I make myself put my phone away when I’ve already taken several photos of a beautiful landscape, knowing it won’t come out the way I want it to anyway. I stare longingly at recent screenshots I’ve sent to friends before hitting that delete button, reasoning with myself that they are already saved right there in the chat. I can retrieve them later if I wish.

The afternoon light warms my skin as I walk between trees on my way to the library. The breeze is the perfect temperature and I come into an acute awareness that I am here, in this moment. I resist the temptation to take a photo of the way sunlight dances through trees, or the way birds fly through the square, or the way my white clothes reflect light.

“You won’t look at it again,” I reason with myself. “Just enjoy the moment. You don’t need to remember this. There will always be more in the future.” And I try to believe it. ⁂

Flora Pan is a Chinese-Canadian writer living in Toronto. She has a master’s degree in journalism and communication and has written for CBC News and This. She is currently seeking representation for her debut novel and working on a new book.