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Andrew Sniderman

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My Beef with Gmail

Posted: 12/25/09 04:02 PM ET

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Gmail remembers everything. As it reminded me this morning at login, "Over 7404.846605 megabytes (and counting) of free storage so you'll never need to delete another message." Keep it all: that is the program's basic premise.

Gmail recalls when we forget. This is convenient, but is it good?

I have been accumulating messages ever since I opened my account on October 5, 2004, when I joined the first wave of Gmail converts in gleefully discarding the constraints of memory. Gone were the days of hoarding my favorite messages and zealously purging the chaff. Deleting was a drag, and besides, it was ever more time consuming. No longer with Gmail. I now have 38,968 messages in my inbox, 18,837 in my sent box, 725 drafts and untold gchats fossilized in the Google cloud. Not to mention the attachments, with countless photos and documents. The record spans schools, jobs, girlfriends, secrets--about 20% of my lifetime thus far, in fact. Content ranges from the inane to the intimate: drunken chatting, work memos, college essays, love missives.

Sound familiar? Now that we live online, our lives get recorded.

Gmail is a new kind of diary, a living portrait of each user reflected in their e-mails. It is less a self-portrait than an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, but in some ways it is more honest than a diary because we often forget we are writing for posterity. This means less self-censorship and more grist for the archives. Untold treasures await biographers of the Gmail generation.

Not only is the record vast, but it is searchable. No need to hunt through mounds of dusty snail mail. Just insert search terms and see what ghosts the ladle brings up from the bubbling cauldron.

The eggheads at Google have conjured an uncanny archivist at the service of every single account holder. The archivist is indefatigable and infallible, a goalie that stops all pucks and a juggler that drops no balls. He copies, stores, fetches and sorts. All this within milliseconds, for free.

Omniscience has its perks. On a daily basis I dart through past messages to locate names, phone numbers, directions, or instructions. When my computer crashes I find earlier drafts. When someone says I-told-you-so, I sometimes get to call their bluff. Gmail is my safety net, my storage box, my personal assistant, my lie detector.

So what's the problem?

To begin, we are increasingly exposing ourselves to others. The insidious genius of Gmail is that its users consent to self-surveillance. Just as my inbox stores messages to me, my outgoing messages are stored in the inboxes of the recipients. An e-mail is forever. We implicitly entrust our thoughts in others, as they do to us, for perpetuity. I, for one, have been more trusting of the medium than it deserves. There is plenty of material for embarrassment, maybe some for blackmail. Gone are the days when you can demand your letters back.

There is, of course, the likely possibility that others have accessed or will access my account without my knowledge. There is no way to know. E-mails are read without tearing envelopes. I am among those who avoided a diary because of its sheer materiality. It was an object to be plundered by a snooping sibling or parent, something I could lose or misplace. I trusted the paperlessness of e-mail. It disappears when I logout, or so I tell myself. As with online forms and payments, we compromise privacy under the mantra of convenience.

Maybe Gmailers have reconciled themselves to this vulnerability. That's the price of entry. The medium preserves the messages. So what? But even supposing that I am the only person who will ever access my Gmail account, and that no one will ever use my e-mails for devious purposes, the idea of a comprehensive archive of my e-communications leaves me with a deep malaise.

Sometimes it's better to forget.

If you had the option to sign up for comprehensive video record of your entire life à la Truman Show, free of charge, would you take it? I think not. We have things to hide from eternity. The banal, for instance. There shall be no record of my picking my nose, thank you very much. And the hurtful. Scars may linger, but each written dagger should not.

The hidden danger of Gmail is that it creates a link to the past that is too strong, too convenient. Our mistakes and our frailties lie right below the surface, revisited with ease. It is possible that Gmail users who don't delete their messages have created their very own historical panopticons. We may be able to see our entire written record, but it also looks at us. Preservation gives the past more weight than it sometimes deserves.

Perhaps we should not fear the truths of the past. Perhaps it is best to reconcile with it rather than bury it. And yes, a Gmail account may lay bare our hypocrisies, contradictions, weaknesses, multiplicities--but this, after all, is part of who we are. It might make it more difficult than ever to build a coherent sense of self, but perhaps it is not a great evil that it has become harder to lie to ourselves.

And yet there is a difference between self-deception and distancing the things we cannot bear to remember. Consider the case of the heartbroken. All the times she was right and he was wrong--it's all there, a moment's search away. Who wants instant replay of relationship death throes? At the click of a button, Gmail turns whispers of the past into shouts. And because it is there, and because minds wander to what might have been, some of us time-warp more than we should. We can, so we do. Sometimes I wish I couldn't.

The obvious solution, of course, is to delete. Yet my index finger still quivers above my mouse when I ready an archival guillotine. Somehow Gmail has managed to make trashing messages feel like an act of cowardice. Gmail earns our appreciation for the small conveniences of infallible memory, but we ignore the virtues of forgetting.

We cannot lament all footprints that fade in a snowstorm.