Op-Ed: Trash, personal history, old lovers: Why our past follows us everywhere

A young man sits at a cyber cafe as he surfs the Internet in Nairobi, Kenya in 2012.

A young man sits at a cyber cafe as he surfs the Internet in Nairobi, Kenya in 2012.

(Tony Karumba / AFP/Getty Images)

It started with garbage. When I was a kid and didn’t want something anymore, I just threw it away. Pfft. Gone. Then came the environmental movement, and we all learned that garbage doesn’t disappear. It gets moved around and buried or burnt, but even then the smoke goes into the air and the ashes go into landfills. It never really goes away.

Then it was official records. When I was in school, we had something called our “permanent yellow sheets.” If you talked back to your homeroom teacher or pushed a boy on the playground, it went on your permanent yellow sheets and it would follow you forever. Or so they said. But in those days, records were actual pieces of paper in a file cabinet. So if somebody removed those pieces of paper, it would be as if the transgression had never occurred. All record of the offense would go away.

With the advent of computers, everything changed.

Being out of touch is no longer a feature of foreign travel, even to far distant lands. You can’t go away.


As a labor arbitrator, I often hear cases involving employee disciplinary action. There are many circumstances that require old discipline to be “expunged.” In the days of paper, expungement meant the page documenting the employee’s violation and punishment would be removed from his file. Now there is a digital record of everything that ever happened to every employee. The record may include the fact that a long-ago disciplinary suspension was “expunged,” but the record itself never goes away.

This permanence problem has now spread to our ephemera.

I remember the morning President Kennedy was shot and Lee Harvey Oswald was captured. Our homeroom teacher assured us kids that by the next morning, the FBI would know everything there was to know about Oswald. They would know, he said, the kind of toothpaste he used.

Now no one has to shoot anybody. All our toothpaste purchases and Google searches and GPS location records and cellphone calls are maintained forever in “the cloud.” None of it ever goes away.

Not too many years ago my wife and I would go on vacation and leave an extended absence announcement: “We’re going to be out of the country and will not have access to voice mail or email while we’re away.” We could still say that, but it is no longer true. Being out of touch is no longer a feature of foreign travel, even to distant lands. You can’t go away.

And then, of course, there is the matter of old lovers. In the past, old lovers had the good manners to disappear. Fond memories remained fond. Unpleasant ones faded. There was a wistfulness that accompanied thoughts of the road not taken. We might not always have Paris, but we’ll always have Benton Harbor.

No more. Old lovers can be resurrected with two clicks. They never go away.

Increasingly, we live in a world in which nothing goes away. The very notion of away is going away.


Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator.

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