Why an Email Hack Feels So Personal – The Atlantic

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The outbox, too, has its pleasures. On occasion I find myself digging into my sent mail with gusto, rereading missives I have fired off just hours before.  

Do I do this because I’m so fascinating? Much the opposite. It’s strangely easy to forget, over the course of a single day, what exactly I’ve been doing, where I’ve gone, what I’ve worried or rejoiced over. But by following my electronic trail, I can connect the dots of my moments into logical, continuous arcs. My email records, virtual as they are, make me feel more solid.

This need for reminders isn’t just a product of our distracted age; we’ve long been good at forgetting ourselves. One of my favorite accounts of emotional amnesia appears in Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way: The young narrator takes a gleeful walk near his home, but when he realizes he won’t get to say goodnight to his mother, his mood plunges so low that he wishes he were dead. This misery will last till the next day, when he will joyfully leap out of bed “with no thought of the fact that evening must return, and with it the hour when I must leave my mother.”

Happiness and anguish, he goes on, “reigned alternately in my mind … going so far as to divide every day between them, each one returning to dispossess the other with the regularity of a fever and ague: contiguous, and yet so foreign to one another, so devoid of means of communication, that I could no longer understand, or even picture to myself, in one state what I had desired or dreaded or even done in the other.”

We have always been multiple people in the course of a single day, and email serves as a link between those many selves. In a way, revisiting our noontime emails at nightfall can feel like reading words by someone else.

And it’s that someone else whom hackers threaten: our older selves, our other minds, and a way to return to them.

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Back home from the Apple Store that June, once I had convinced myself that no one was logging my keystrokes or tapping my phone, I answered Gmail’s security questions, entered the code Google sent my phone, and clicked “sign in.” The computer paused. In that pause, my digital life flashed before my eyes.

And then it all materialized onscreen. On top, my unread emails. In the middle, my opened emails. Below, the invitations to plays I still didn’t plan to attend, the notes from the calendar function I still didn’t use, and the inquiries from LinkedIn, still plaintive. My chat buddies, all in a row, seemingly unaware of what they had survived.

Yet I couldn’t relate to this familiar world in quite the same way as I had before. Each time I signed in, I worried the password would fail; each time I refreshed, I wondered if I’d get logged out. The symbol of permanence no longer seemed permanent. Instead, it seemed as transient as the need to draft a love note I’d later forget about. Or the person who wrote that note, with her messier hair and dingier apartment and entry-level job—someone even the best search terms can never truly call back.

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