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Harder to hold on to the past

In this digital age, tangibles such as printed photos and birthday cards are almost non-existent

The clock on my bedroom wall stopped six months ago at half-past 12. I could change the battery, but why? The ticking is annoying. If I wake in the dark yearning to know how much longer I can sleep, either my smartwatch or smartphone can tell me the time.

Half-past 12. Who speaks that way any more? Aren't these near obsolete: the use of an analog watch, penmanship and the knowledge of where to paste stamps on an envelope?

A family friend in India spent months canvassing watch shops in various cities, looking for someone to repair her father's 75-year-old wristwatch. Eventually she and her husband paid $1,000 in Hong Kong to return the gold-brown Omega to working condition.

She didn't pay to tell the time, but to retain the memories associated with this instrument, made in 1942. It had a newfangled second hand that delighted her child self and made her beg her father to time her sprints and dashes. It was "automatic" and wound itself when worn. On the rare occasions when the watch stopped, she delighted in the krr-krr sound of her father winding it back to life.

Twenty years ago, my father found his late father's automatic watch and gave it to me for a few months. He soon took it back. Clockwork and gears stutter to a halt on my wrist. A brand-new watch bought for me as a graduation present spent more time in repair than on my hand.

I started sporting watches five years ago, when wearable MP3 players and fitness trackers became commonplace. Smartwatches function without issue on my arm. I am a child of technology. I was made for it and have been shaped by it.


ST ILLUSTRATION: CHNG CHOON HIONG

From the ages of 10 to 13, I wrote my homework with a fountain pen. Refilling one was cheaper than buying dozens of ballpoint pens. The shiny chrome and steel exterior hid a pliable rubber tube that was pressed to take in blue or black ink. My handwriting was good, my creative writing mediocre. Desire for expression was cowed by the numerous chicken-scratches required before the best word or phrase was found.

Computers unleashed my inner writer. Now I can paste text and substitute it and undo and redo phrasing with a light heart. No ghosts of past mistakes haunt me on the clear screen. I refuse to turn on the "show revision" function.

My 73-year-old aunt makes corrections on print-outs. She enjoys computers. She took to Solitaire games and e-mail and Skype telephony. I expected this.

She is daunted by smartphones. I did not expect this.

A retired scientist, she set up India's first research station in the Antarctic. Her lab created bacteria that would clean up oil spills before Exxon was a dirty word. Her mind has always been vast, expanding from kerosene stoves to microwave ovens, from vacuum tube TVs to YouTube streaming media.

She was addicted to her desktop computer, but is stumped by a device that fits all the same functions into the palm of her hand. She uses the smartphone as a telephone, period, not as a weather predictor or navigational guide. If she needs to tell the time, she checks her left arm and the 75-year-old wristwatch that belonged to my maternal grandfather.

My smartwatch-cum-fitness tracker syncs to my smartphone and buzzes with incoming messages. Some months ago, it vibrated with a call from California. "How fast is your Internet?" asked my friend, who works at Nasa. "I'm downloading data from Jupiter right now at seven megabytes a second. Seven Mbps." The occasional crackle interrupted his words. I imagined it as the hiss of interplanetary data washing into my life from across light years. I listened until the time zones separated our waking lives.

Time zones defined by meridiens separate us in the physical world. Time zones defined by technology separate us mentally from the world. For a while, we are in sync with the world, but it always races ahead. Not all of us can keep up.

My aunt's time zone stopped at the invention of the personal computer. The world demands she pay her bills by cellphone and receive soft copies of flight tickets. She resists this, unable to accept that the phone company would rather not take payment in hard cash. She wants to hold her ticket and boarding pass in her hand. At a library researching information, she wants to speak to a librarian, not surf the infoweb for e-books.

She was a child of technology, as am I. How far will my zone stretch?

Already in my life, the United States and India have sent spacecraft to Mars and the world has seen photos of the dark side of Pluto.

Nasa has grown lettuce in space. Astronauts are training for the years-long mission of colonising the Red Planet. On Earth, we can ballot for the privilege of going along.

I may have a future in space, on Mars. Why not? It is just as extraordinary as the fact that I have IMed and ICQed with comics lovers in the US and UK, that I use Skype or Viber or WhatsApp to speak to singers in Russia or violinists from Finland.

I embrace the future, but sometimes the speed of change singes the shell of my personal time zone. I discarded Orkut and Friendster to engage on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

"Do you SnapChat?" asked my friend, posing for one of many selfies. "You should start. Follow me. Take a photo of me?"

We take photos together, but we don't get around to printing them.

At home, there are black-and-white photos of my parents' wedding celebrations. There are framed colour images of my grandparents and me.

I have no tangible record of more recent times with loved ones. We never printed the digital photos from the last family holiday before my grandmother died. Photos of current friends and exes lie buried in my phone, unseen, forgotten. When I remember, I delete them. They take up too much memory.

We wrote to each other once upon a time, inscribing real and imagined feelings in cards, loving letters, love letters, angry messages. Every few years, I had to shred some of the growing pile to keep it manageable. Should I hold on to the birthday cards that meant so much at age 15 or callously release the stack to the recycling bin?

I haven't received or penned a birthday card in years. I receive and send rows of emojis, the occasional phone call, lots of likes on Facebook pages. Facebook reminds users of birthdays and lets us send automated greetings too.

Technology makes it easier to remember people, but also easier to forget them. It should be harder to forget people.

It is so easy now if you want to excise someone from your life, perhaps a friend you have outgrown or now detest. Unfollow on Instagram and Twitter. Block on Facebook. Delete old e-mails and chats, refuse to answer calls, block the number. Become a digital ghost.

The past doesn't haunt us digital ghosts. Only when I find a tangible memento - a pin, an envelope - do I feel like I am coming unmoored.

Physical items persist in linking us to the past. When they disappear, that too can be like coming unmoored.

My father had his father's watch once. We don't know where it is now. It is lost, like my great-grandfather's pocket chronometer. My parents remember these people and the instruments that recorded the precious time they spent together. I have stories, but no tangible link to them.

Perhaps it is that which wakes me in the second watch of night, the imagined ticking of these timekeepers in some overlooked corner. It is the same corner perhaps that holds fountain pens, typewriters, envelopes and other unnecessary tools of the past.

I wake from dreams of space exploration into the earthbound shock of a silent clock. It would tick if only I bought batteries.

Why would I? The smartwatch on my wrist glows at a tap and silently tells me what hour it is. In a year it will be outdated, in two years the maker will refuse to repair it. It will disappear into a landfill, having marked a bit of my past.

It will not survive into my future nor will it record for some future generation the past that had me in it.

There is no pain in being forgotten. There may be pain, but there is always some pleasure in remembering.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 06, 2016, with the headline 'Harder to hold on to the past'. Print Edition | Subscribe