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     Volume 6 Issue 39 | October 5, 2007 |

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A Roman Column

The Delete Button

'Effacement' By Rafia Ahmed

Neeman Sobhan

I am mortified! Almost as bad as being caught by the camera with spinach in ones teeth, my last week's column suffered a similar fate when it was published with its slip showing. In this case, there was a line dangling at the end of the piece, the fragment of a sentence I thought I had deleted!

My column should have ended with the words 'ask me after Iftaar.' Yet, to my horror I found appended at the very end an irrelevant sentence (about morning breath and morning's breath, if you please!) meant as doodling and aimed for the trash, which was hiding at the bottom of another page, stuck to the main essay like lint to cloth, and which ended up being printed as the last line! Dear Readers, please tell me you realised that the natural conclusion of my column had been sabotaged by a defective delete button. In a world where things fall apart and get deleted when you don’t want them to, this was one case when the delete button did not work when it should have. Digital irony!

I don’t know if I'm alone in this, but I have a built-in fear of the innate treachery of mechanical entities such as the computer, whose alien souls, I believe, harbour malice towards the guileless humans operating them. I feel they are out to get us at any opportunity, rubbing their hands in glee when, for example, an email or a document disappears into ether with the accidental touch of the wrong key; or in the opposite case of the disappearing act, as in my last week's blunder, when a line not meant for the public eye materialises in print! Double digital irony!

Generally, the business of writing, saving, filing, sending and managing ones digitally created words is risky business. But nothing can be more distressing than to have a page or a letter one has spent a painstaking hour to compose, vanish into the Hades and Lethe lurking behind the screen. Yes, at some point or the other, everyone is held hostage by the technical devil hiding inside the computer and illustrating the phenomenon of the original meaning of deus ex machina in vicious reverse.

Sometime it’s a combination of machine and man that creates the Bermuda triangle of words, ideas and images. Like safety pins and pens that routinely disappear in a normal household when not stored in the right place (and sometimes in spite of it), emails and documents too, regularly get lost due to some less than divine 'moving finger' that 'writes and having writ moves on' without backing up or saving. After which, is it a surprise that 'nor all thy piety nor wit can lure it back….'? And if it’s a case of an unedited draft letter (full of things you will regret later and thus plan to revise) that gets launched by accident into cyber space, beyond recall or emotional repair, you know with the despairing knot in the pit of your stomach that not only not all your piety and wit, but no amount of charm or money either can induce thy computer ' to cancel half a line nor all thy tears wash a word of it'.

This is the mystic lap-top philosophy of personal experience that speaks to my heart and brings tears to my eyes! I'm sure that the long ago tent-maker Omar K or his altar ego Fitzgerald didn't know that the wisdom of this Rubayee was not about the Pen of Destiny but the Keyboard of Human and Digital Fallibility.

Or if we consider that other quatrain that Khayaam did not write: 'And that inverted bowl we call the cosmic delete button'! That's another story, but it too, like its keyboard cousin doesn't function when we want it to and goes into action when we don’t want it to. I am still banging away at this invisible delete key to erase painful memories from my life, and at the opposite end, trying to retrieve lost worlds and past times erased from the files of my mind. I have misplaced people and places, and as the memory fades, the names, sensory associations and emotions attached to them slowly lose their clarity or are deleted totally.

Apart from the metaphysics of this rambling, let us not lose sight, for the purposes of this essay, of the sheer physics of the disappearance of our precious inner worlds manifest as digital words and images, and at the mercy of digital gods with their unholy keys and devilish delete buttons. We have recounted the tyranny and treachery of computers, but what about that other double edged sword, the digital camera?

Oh! I adore it to bits, except when I have forgotten to download its contents. And, naturally, the memory chip is always full exactly when the (outdated) Kodak moment is happening! I have the right person, angle, light and action in focus when my digital camera simpley shrugs and informs me that there is no free space in its memory. So, inevitably, I find myself crouching in a corner frantically going through the files, killing off as many images that at this crucial moment deserve to die. But a distracted slip, and there goes the wrong photo to the gallows, eliminated forever before you can get your breath back. The delete button has got you again.

The thing about digital photos is that unless you develop them and put them into conventional photo-albums, which I do less and less as I store them as image files inside the computer, your memories are at risk. If you haven't backed them up by storing them separately in memory sticks, one computer crash and your life fades into oblivion.

Now, before my column also disappears into thin air, let me save it. But just as importantly, let me check its teeth to see there are no specks of spinach or any lurking, undeleted passages before I send it out to my readers… So, now let's see….control-alt……Oh! My digital god! Where did it go?

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