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Information Suicide

Some things need to be let go

By Annalee Newitz

I've been thinking a lot about suicide lately--not as a lifestyle option for me personally, but as a concept. Admittedly, this isn't all just disinterested musing. People around me have been throwing around the idea of suicide a lot lately in one of those weird coincidences where a topic you never hear about suddenly haunts every conversation. About three weeks ago, someone told me about walking in on a suicide; and then two other people I know fairly well--but who don't know each other--both announced that they were seriously considering pulling Kurt Cobains.

Like most cultural radicals, I'm in favor of "assisted suicide" for the terminally ill (and, possibly, lifelong depression could be counted as a terminal illness). But I was still emphatically not in favor of suicide for either of these people. More than anything, I ng wanted to save them. Save them from what? I don't know--their pasts, their wrongheaded feelings of worthlessness, their pain, their need to look for a way out rather than a way forward.

And yet, because the human mind does not obey the laws of propriety and in fact thrives on a kind of chaotic wickedness, I couldn't help but think about all the other things I've wanted to save from death--things that have finally committed suicide without my intervention. That's right: things, not people.

At a previous job, I had my own computer, with its own hard drive. By the time I left the job, that hard drive was packed with vitality. It was full of my email, several drafts of a giant article I'd written on Linux, not to mention hundreds of other personal and work-related chunks of writing. I never deleted anything. I mean, why bother? The hard drive was several gigs, and Word files aren't exactly space hogs.

It was an ordinary enough example of thoughtless neglect. Although I didn't need all the files, I wanted that feeling of having them all there at my fingertips. Maybe it was even selfish, wanting those files to live instead of deleting them into oblivion or letting some sysadmin do it for me, execution-style. I saw my own life reflected in those files, and if they survived then I was surviving too.

But they didn't survive, and in fact I let them die in the most miserable way. When I left my job, I kept meaning to wipe them off the hard drive, sweeping them all neatly onto a Zip disk that I would carry around with me for the next decade, perhaps for the rest of my life. But I never got around to doing it. I abandoned them, those little linguistic bits of life, and finally the computer was purged without my knowledge and sent back to Florida, where the main office of my former company is located.

Some information is meant to die, to commit suicide in our absence. Yahoo.com, the original information portal, is like a map of Internet suicide. If you peruse any given subject hierarchy (like, say, under the "business" header), you'll find dozens of links that no longer work. Sometimes there's an electronic gravestone: This website has been taken down. But more often there's the hallmark of information suicide, which is to say that there's nothing at all. You go to the alleged URL only to get some anonymous error message, or a redirect to the ISP main page.

When information dies, it doesn't leave monuments. And although people try to leave monuments for each other and themselves, the fact is that death often works like the delete button. You're gone, and when people look for you, all they get is a confusing error message: she no longer lives here; this phone number doesn't reach; the information you're looking for is gone.

I think human suicide is more often than not a kind of information suicide, a wish to wipe out the emails and image files and text documents that live in our minds long after they are useful or relevant. Because we cannot forget that particular image of hurt, that memory of his last words to us, or that endless spreadsheet of monotonous lonely hours, we wipe out ourselves instead of the information that plagues us. Because we cannot bear to let our information die, we die.

And that's why--although I mourn for the lost files on my long-gone work computer--I still leave stray files here and there, on Charles' computer, or my work computer, or some loaner laptop. Let the information die. And let the people live.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who is more of a homicidal type than a suicidal one.

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From the September 21-27, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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