The first time I read Dickens' A Christmas Carol, it wasn't so much Marley's ghost that bothered me, it was the chains. O.K., the rag that tied his mouth shut was pretty creepy too, but mostly I had a problem with the chains. I was too young to realize that it was an existential thing — that I was undone by the notion that, no matter how sorry he was, those "chains of sin" would follow him forever. As Marley said:
"I wear the chain I forged in life, I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it."
No matter his current regrets, he was going to haul those chains around with him throughout eternity. It just didn't seem fair.
The same, it occurs to me, is true about the strands of text, image and experience we "make link by link of our own free will" out on the Internet. No doubt, all those links seemed good decisions when forged, when we hit post, link, send or tag. Each link was a momentary insight, a fleeting truth. But they grow heavier by the year, and we cannot shed them, no matter how sorry we now may be.
Actually, we cannot shed them even when we are not sorry, we cannot shed them when they are simply outgrown and inconvenient — like Uggs in a ballroom. I came to that realization when I began my experiment with Google+. I quite liked the idea of an upside-down version of Facebook, where the small group took precedent over the revealing hoard. So I created a "circle" that contained only the graduate students who served as graders for my large undergraduate courses. I flung open the door in anticipation of a cozy chat with a group of young scholars who shared my interest in online education.
In walked a member of the team, a bright and delightful young man, who was also a Google+ power user. Trailing behind him was a chain ponderous beyond all imagining. Posts and responses from utter strangers stretched off to the far horizons.
"Please leave those in the hall," said I.
"I cannot," said he, quoting poor Marley, "They are my business."
Well, I let him in anyhow. But I wasn't wild about the idea.
Surely there is some simple way to strike off Marley's Chains when we enter the theoretically more cordial environment of Google+? The idea was, I thought, to advantage the small, the private, the constrained. Yet still we hit "share" and forge anew these schizophrenic chains, condemned to drag their babbling voices behind us into any "Circle" to which we are invited. What's more, they do not fit into the room, you cannot bar the door. The chains stretch out, posting and re-posting time out of mind.
"This is just between us," you say.
"Right," says Marley. "Strictly 'entre nous'"
"Got it," say his chains. "Under the hat"
"Mum's the word!"
"Shhhh, keep it down!" "Cool it!," and so on around the world.
Rude at best, creepy at worst.
And Marley's Chains stretch far back beyond today's sexy new "social media." Old e-mail, papers written and published online back when you were far more certain and foolish than you are today, programs from conferences you wish you hadn't attended. All our digital faux pas clanking along behind us. It is not so much my own chains that trouble me, though a quick Google search reveals them significant in their own right. Still, I have labored on Marley's Digital Chains for a mere mite of my life. I was already 45-years-old when the digital forge leapt to fire. Hence, many a callow and foolish link lay forgotten amidst the dust of analog attics. Letters, notes, diaries, poems and photographs were abandoned — with only occasional regrets — to be swirled away by the insistent winds of time.
Time was when time was forgotten. But that was the world before bits and bytes. I read, with the same blend of fascination and horror we bring to train wrecks and natural disasters, of parents setting up Facebook accounts for their children in utero. An ultrasound image anchors the profile of the unborn. I swear, I wake up sweating. But Marley chuckles, smashing away at the forge: "They're gonna love this at preschool." These are the chains that worry me.
I have nothing against memory, though, as I have mentioned elsewhere, I prefer her more forgiving twin, memoir. But the Internet's blind fidelity to "that which was entered" crafts for us all trailing tails of Marley's Chains. Yes, some are chains of our own making, but others are struck by those beyond our ken, the creation of an unknown "friend" of a "friend," yet still permanent.
In closing let us turn again to Dickens:
"Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Scrooge. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change."
Perhaps we should consider departing from some of the courses down which we follow our Internet guides. Perhaps every thought should not be given voice, perhaps some images should be restrained, perhaps some video should remain private, some music "thumbed" neither up nor down. Perhaps, since we cannot break them at our leisure, some chains should be left unforged.