What late poet Seamus Heaney’s last text tells us about our digital lives

Shortly before he died five years ago, the Nobel prize-winning Irish poet, playwright, and translator Seamus Heaney sent a last text message to his wife. “Noli timere,” it ended. “Be not afraid. When I read his son’s account of Heaney’s text, I was struck by the anachronistic juxtaposition–Latin across SMS. It was as though Heaney’s message had resuscitated a dead language, if only for a moment. Sent impossibly fast through silicon, steel, and air, Heaney’s two words pronounced themselves in the mind of another person. Almost like magic.

And, in fact, it often seems that our digital communications platforms–best represented by the internet–are a kind of wizardry. The internet allows me to transmit, reproduce, and retrieve meaning independent of time and space. It records both the passage and content of the thought–whether it was quotidian or profound. Love letters to old partners, plans to meet up with friends, threats of thermonuclear war from world leaders, grocery lists from years ago: They are all stored and indexed into a half-life of binary code.

Every day, I dredge up this past and haul it into the present. If written in ink on paper, the weight of what I carry would crush me. As Virginia Heffernan wrote in her book, Magic and Loss, “The Internet is paradigmatic magic. It turns experiences from the material world that used to be densely physical–involving licking stamps, say, or winding clocks or driving in cars to shopping centers–into frictionless, weightless, and fantastic abstractions.”

In a similar way, Heaney’s text translates the weight of physical intimacy into ether. It exemplifies magic. (You might protest that SMS is not TCP/IP, and, so, technically, the internet had nothing to do with it. I’d respond that we no longer conceptualize the internet as bound by mere protocol; the internet’s digital connectedness extends beyond the plumbing used.)

I’ve been trying to account for my fascination with Heaney’s last text for almost five years. Every time, I end up shrugging my shoulders and saying, “It’s complicated.” I’ll try again, now. I’m obsessed with Heaney’s text because the sorcery of the net imbued every letter of it with power–infinite reproducibility and unending retrievability. But the same medium also shaded the text’s words with poignant truths that, perhaps now more than ever, reproduction fails and nothing lasts forever.

This is the paradox of the internet, and it’s one we’ll have to resolve if we want to eke out meaning from our increasingly digital lives. After all, we don’t just use the internet any more; now, we’re becoming creatures of its magic. As Benjamin Curtis wrote at Neiman Lab: “When we integrate things from the external environment into our thinking processes, they play the same cognitive role as our brains do. They become just as much a part of our minds as neurons and synapses.” But the trouble is, Curtis continued, “it is not clear that our minds can take the strain.”

You don’t have to look far to see the cracks. Yes, the internet granted our wish–anyone with a smartphone and a data plan has access to the fast-growing, endlessly replicating weight of human history–but, like the curse of the monkey’s paw, instead of being liberated by all this messy meaning, we’re buckling beneath it. Thoughts, attention, politics, values, even identities: all are at risk.

But Heaney’s text doesn’t fascinate me because it reveals, finally, the darkness of the internet’s magic. No, I think noli timere shows us something better: a solution to the quandary the internet poses.

An elegy for itself

I’ve been saying that Heaney sent his text, but to say that we send digital messages is to use an imperfect metaphor. When we send things offline–letters, packages, ourselves–they are no longer where they were before; objects are only ever in one place at a time. Yet a text message like Heaney’s exists in many places, all at once. You might say that you never really send a text. Really, you reproduce it in another place. In fact, the internet requires reproduction. It’s foundational.

Every time I navigate my browser to a URL, my computer is reproducing something that is stored on a server somewhere. Adding up all the copying I do when I surf the web, I am staggered by the scale of it. Even my reproductions reproduce. I repost manifestos on Tumblr, retweet jokes on Twitter, and re-share selfies on Facebook. I copy and paste paragraphs, screenshot photos, and reproduce memes. Heaney’s text reproduced in this way, too. With the help of humans, the story went viral. Note that word, viral–runaway copying, when a cell is forced to reproduce a bit of code till it bursts.

But viruses mutate: Copies always lose something in reproduction. Sometimes the loss is intentional. The best memes get concatenated. They gain new meaning at the price of their original wholeness. Sometimes, the loss is an error. Screenshots of screenshots produce “shitpics”–blurry, pixelated shadows of their former selves. The artist Pete Ashton pointed at the illusion of perfect reproducibility in a piece called Sitting in Stagram: 90 iterations of an image, reproduced into oblivion. He explained: “Since Instagram has no mechanic for reposting (unlike, say, Tumblr), users who want to ‘regram’ an image take a screen capture and post it as a new image. Each reposting introduces generational loss as the image is transcoded from PNG to JPG and optimized by Instagram. While initially irrelevant, the loss adds up and the image degrades.” Death by a thousand copies.

Reproduction is a better metaphor than sending, but it’s not perfect either. After all, to copy an object, you need a concrete thing to copy, but on the internet there is no concrete: it’s abstraction all the way down. “And yet it’s still here, the persistent sense of loss,” Heffernan continued. “The magic of the Internet–the recession of the material world in favor of a world of ideas–is not pure delight.”

When I instantiate an idea from the digital world–fire up my browser, for example–the server does not give me a copy of a page; it gives me the instructions, the code, for how to build a page. It’s the same as the abstract notion of a piece of music–a Beethoven sonata, say–in which the ideal is never achievable; interpretations vary from pianist to pianist; meanings change from audience to audience. Similarly, different kinds browsers produce different results, different personal software settings cause different interpretations, different contexts warp meaning. “Between two discourses, two languages, two regimes, something is always lost,” Heffernan wrote.

None of this is novel: “All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking,” the former poet laureate, Robert Hass, wrote in his poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas.” He wasn’t talking explicitly about digital loss (though he could have been). He was talking about how meaning loses coherence as language shuttles our thoughts from mind to mind. “Because there is in this world no one thing / to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds, / a word is elegy to what it signifies,” he wrote. The fact of translation–even just from concept to word–destroys meaning.

As Ashton showed, as Heffernan wrote, and as Hass put so adroitly, loss and transformation walk hand in hand. (There’s even a technical word for the kind of digital compression that degrades: lossy.) So, no, there’s nothing new in the fact of loss. What’s new is the scale and speed of it. The internet confronts us with the crumbling of meaning more quickly than ever before.

So far, I’ve mostly been talking about the technical realities of loss, but our online social lives also imply a loss, albeit of a different kind. “Time is a privacy setting,” John Herrman declared at The Awl, a web-only publication that has died, that will, soon, in all likelihood, no longer be read, or possibly even accessible. “A single user’s Twitter archive is a series of permanent and public contributions to discussions that have long since ended,” he wrote. “In the archives … each speaker is isolated to the point of incoherence.”

But there’s more than incoherence lurking in the lossy format of the internet; there’s danger, too. Wrested from their contexts, stripped from their times and places, our isolated words can turn on their owners. Jill Lepore noted at The New Yorker, “It might seem, and it often feels, as though stuff on the Web lasts forever, for better and frequently for worse: the embarrassing photograph, the regretted blog.” Context decays. A tweet is elegy to what it signifies.

That’s true, and yet an elegy is also a kind of poem. There’s something magisterial about the cracking facade of meaning. What I mean is this: The strangeness of Heaney’s last anachronism did not minimize the import of his words. Rather, it doubled it. Its form–this decaying medium–made it an elegy to itself as well as to its author, an elegy for, first, his family and, then, for everyone touched by his work.

We’re all on Snapchat now

Before I moved my life onto the internet, back when I only stored information on ink and paper, I was happy when I could remember in which book I had underlined that one passage; now, I’m frustrated when I can’t find a years-old email immediately. In our frictionless, keystroke-away world, analog access to the past feels unwieldy. Our knowledge sleeps fitfully “in the cloud”–which is to say in a computer, beside racks and racks other computers just like it, in a vast, refrigerated warehouse somewhere very far away.

But with a single command, an unpaid bill, or a change in ownership of one particular batch of servers, that knowledge is gone forever. Lepore, in the same New Yorker piece, reported that the average life of a page online is about 100 days. She wrote:

In 2006, David Cameron gave a speech in which he said that Google was democratizing the world, because “making more information available to more people” was providing “the power for anyone to hold to account those who in the past might have had a monopoly of power.” Seven years later, Britain’s Conservative Party scrubbed from its Web site ten years’ worth of Tory speeches, including that one. … Social media, public records, junk: in the end, everything goes.

Everything does go. Heaney’s words may seem timeless, but, written as they are in ones and zeros, they blink in bright flashes of energy that make fireflies seem long-lived. The permanence of the internet is an illusion maintained by greater and greater expenditures of electricity and human attention. In truth, a third kind of loss lurks behind the wizardry.

Our online ephemerality saddens me because it mirrors our bodies’ impermanence. I go to the internet because I’m a narcissist and a hoarder, and the web gives me the illusion of immortality. All my music, all my pictures, all my words, all my friends: there they all are, and they’ll be stored there until I decide to delete them. But the truth is that the hypertextual present is no more immune to the ravages of time than I am. Eventually we’re all written over. We’re all reformatted. All erased. We’re all on Snapchat, whether we realize it or not.

Picking blackberries

Even after all this, I still haven’t been able to fully explain the enchantment within Heaney’s text. Let me try again. Web pages go dark. Context flattens and language decays. Someday, even Heaney’s message might cease to mean: the lossy, imperfect medium that holds it might dissolve its essence. But the true magic of Heaney’s text is not located in its medium; the power behind his incantation makes the speed, reproducibility, and recall of the platform look like mere parlor tricks. Noli timere is the meeting point of three waves of loss–the life, the Latin, and the medium. You might expect grief, and that’s there; the loss of a human is a loss of incalculable value. But there’s beauty, too. The Latin is warm reminder of rebirth, of the irrepressibility of meaning in the fact of its passing.

It’s hard to believe that joy, tangible and affecting, can be found in the abstraction of a text message. There’s a lesson in this discovery. The fight over the internet is often cast as a struggle between Luddites and techno-utopians in which one camp says we shouldn’t, the other that we must. Heaney implies a new, better question than should; he asks us how. And he gifts us an answer: by embracing loss.

“A copy of Heaney’s last words exists on his own phone. It exists on his wife’s phone. It likely exists on a server somewhere, an archive maintained by the cell provider, a stash no one will ever read,” Robinson Meyer beautifully wrote at The Atlantic. “But the wires that carried it; the air through which it shimmered; the switches that transfigured it between kinds of invisible light: They have already forgotten it, for now they glow with the words of other children and children, parents and parents, and lovers and lovers.”

In one Heaney poem, a couple picks blackberries, hoards them in a byre, only to discover that “Once off the bush / The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.” This saddens Heaney’s speaker, who feels like crying. “Each year,” Heaney writes, “I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.” Neither blackberries nor words nor bodies will keep forever. We pick them anyway. Don’t be afraid.

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