Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Erich Fromm and losing computer files

Coincidentally, I was reading Erich Fromm’s To Have or To Be?

a few days ago when I lost pretty much everything on my computer. In this later work, Fromm contrasts what he calls the having orientation, dominant in our capitalist culture, with the being orientation, which he calls on people to try to realize in their own lives and in society. He writes:

Speaking of having something permanently rests upon the illusion of a permanent and indestructible substance. If I seem to have everything, I have – in reality – nothing, since my having, possessing, controlling an object is only a transitory moment in the process of living. (p. 77)

The cautious, the having persons enjoy security yet by necessity they are very insecure. They depend on what they have: money, prestige, their ego – that is to say, on something outside themselves. But what becomes of them if they lose what they have? For, indeed, whatever one has can be lost.

…The anxiety and insecurity engendered by the danger of losing what one has are absent in the being mode. If I am who I am and not what I have, nobody can deprive me of or threaten my security and my sense of identity. (pp. 109-110)

Fortunately, I’d recently backed up the files that are in productive use and actively relevant to ongoing work. I did lose quite a bit, including various collections of bookmarks and links and music, but at the time these were destroyed my relationship with them wasn’t entirely “alive,” as Fromm describes those characteristic of the being mode. I’d started to relate to most of this primarily in a possessive, passive way. I feared losing it all, even though I wasn’t engaged with it and found maintaining and organizing it to be a chore. Even my large collection of feeds (among them, funnily enough, mnmlist) had become somewhat burdensome – while I enjoyed and learned from much of what I was reading, I felt almost obliged to keep up with them.

A typical response to someone’s loss of computer files is to try to provide information on how to better “secure” what we have - backing up, backing up the backups, storing everything in the safest location or with the safest third party, and so on. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t back up the material with which we’re actively engaged. But maybe we should consider approaching digital material, like anything else, less as stuff that we have and more as something we’re either productively related to in the present or, if not, something we can let go of.

In any case, I can’t think of any other book that would have offered a better perspective at that moment.

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