Ephemerality


I can’t say I remember much from my college education—at least, not as far as academia is concerned. All the cultural practices of the of the Amazonian Yanomami tribe (Anthro 2), all the stuff that St. Augustine had to say about God (Comp Lit 20), all the differential and integral calculus formulas (Math 3A and 3B), gone like deleted brain files. I learned them for the test I’d be taking, or the paper I’d be writing, but there were more tests to take the next quarter, and the quarter after that. By the time the degree came along, all the information was overlapping and buried and irretrievable; by the time a few years had passed, most of the data had atrophied without use.

But there were a few things that stuck with me, specifically. And one of them was an essay about the digital letter “e.”

I was taking a computer science class that fulfilled some kind of requirement toward my degree in Sociology. Its theme was information in society—how we transfer information, absorb it, and preserve it. There was an article in my reader about the ephemeral nature of information, and in that article the following question was posed: If you typed the letter e in an email, and then deleted it, and then retyped it, was it still the same letter e?

Now just stop and think about that for a minute. This shit’s layered. Embedded in that single question are aspects with regard to physics, electronics, digitization, aesthetics, perception, communication, inherent relevance, linguistic fortitude, and the very continuum of time and space. It was probably the most philosophical quandary I’d ever encountered, and I’d already had enough of those thrown at me with regard to god and existence and morality (Phil 101) to give me a passing bout of existential anxiety.

If you delete an e, and retype it, is it the same letter e?

Guess what? I just did! That last one, up there? The one before the question mark? Yep. I killed it, then brought it back to life.

But you wouldn’t know that unless I told you. For all you knew, that e was there the whole time. At least, on my computer. But is the e on my computer the same as the one on yours? If two people are online at the same time, reading the same article, are they looking at the same e, or do they each have their own e? If I copied and pasted this blog, am I just creating e after e after e? “Here you go, internet! Es for everyone!”

(I’m not even sure if es is the plural of e. But I digress…)

I mean, of course not. I’m not creating something out of nothing, right? It’s all digital, and these e letters are coming and going from computer to computer, from file to file, from monitor to monitor, via an elaborate network of fiberglass and cables and electrons and servers and flash drives and processors and circuits that are either open or closed. That’s all. Ain’t no thing. Nothing to worry about here, just a billion, trillion things happening at once to get that letter e in front of your eyes so that you can look at it with your eyeballs, or listen to it with your ears if you’re using a screenreader, so that your brain can interpret this mere component of a word, strung together with other words, to convey a complex double-meaning from one human soul to another. No big!

But let’s take it even further. In truth, there is no letter e. Language is just noise, writing is just eye candy, unless we come along and assign values to patterns such as these. Even more so, there is no “digital” letter e. The character is just a manifestation that comes and goes as your monitor turns a collection of pixels black. Hell, if you scroll down, guess what’s just happened? That’s right, it’s a different collection of pixels that are now black on your monitor. That letter e, despite all the power it holds in this essay to help me talk about the letter e, doesn’t even really exist. Fuck ephemeral, it was never there in the first place.

This goes beyond the letter e, of course. We live in a universe that is mostly nothing. As solid as matter seems, most of the universe is composed not of atoms, but of the empty void within the atom, the space between its nucleus and its outermost electron shell. It’s merely the speed of the electrons that create what amounts to the atom’s size. Atoms have been practicing social distancing long before we came up with the idea. And the size of the electron doing all the work is infinitesimal! There's as much space in matter as there is space in space! And this matter, although never created or destroyed, is in constant flux. Printed books turn to dust. Suns are born and die. Galaxies form and fade. The very universe expands and implodes. And lives, in their immeasurable worth, come and go. The physical world is no less ephemeral than the digital.

So yes, as far as facts in isolation are concerned, perhaps my college education was as ephemeral as the letter e. But I like to think those facts once learned and long forgotten still play a vital role, submerged yet buoyant for recollection, subconsciously applied to matters at hand—like a letter e, just waiting to be retyped and to become a part of something greater than it could ever be on its own.

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