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Passwords are like a time machine to the past

What is harder than forgetting what you never thought you had to memorise is realising you have no idea how you will feel in the future

Life is full of things you thought you didn’t need to learn ‘by heart’. (iStockphoto)

Have you been thinking of passwords lately? Passwords and privacy and how funny it is to move to an app for privacy and find out that app tells everyone in your phone book that you have joined?

I have started wondering about my fraying memory’s ability to cope with passwords. Fraying not just because of age but also overuse. All the space that was once used for multiplication tables and George Michael song lyrics and all my friends’ phone numbers and the difference between capybaras and tapirs has been overtaken by my PAN card number, my Gmail password, my bank customer ID, my bank passwords that change every three months, the pin to my phone, my Amazon password. Some stuff is saved and some stuff can be recovered through my email but computers crash and phones are lost. (Or you know, you could annoy the entire Maharashtra government and the Mumbai police and then everyone is making memes out of your WhatsApp "you up?" exchanges in which you thought using initials was enough discretion for your bitchy references. In which case, all bets are off and passwords are the least of your problems.) It’s all very stressful.

Take Stefan Thomas, a German programmer who once owned a bitcoin fortune worth 1,800 crore. The password to this fortune lay in an encryption device. Sounds great except Thomas, news reports say, has forgotten the password. He gets 10 whole tries before the device self-destructs, Mission Impossible style. Thomas is down eight tries and has reportedly accepted that he has lost his 1,800 crore.

Or, say, you are senior advocates appearing in the Delhi high court to discuss WhatsApp’s updated privacy policies and this exchange ensues.

“Sr. Adv. Mukul Rohatgi: I am appearing for WhatsApp.”

Sr. Adv. Sibal: I am appearing for WhatsApp, you are appearing for Facebook.”

At this point you might be tempted to say, how can you forget whether you are appearing in the Delhi high court on behalf of WhatsApp or Facebook? This must be fake news. (It isn’t.) This is the kind of memory loss I worry about. Things you didn’t think you would ever forget. Clearly Thomas never thought he would forget. Thomas, who has been trying to remember his password for the last eight years, said: “There were sort of a couple of weeks where I was just desperate, I don’t have any other word to describe it. You sort of question your own self-worth. What kind of person loses something that important?”

Having stared in total blankness at many secret questions supposed to help me remember my password, I fully sympathise with Thomas. The secret question is a time machine to help you go back to that moment when you thought your childhood best friend’s nickname from throwball practice was enshrined in your memory forever. Life is full of things you thought you didn’t need to learn “by heart” because they were already in your heart. The way your first love smelt, the reason you quit working with your crazy boss the first time round, why it seemed so important to straighten your hair. But you lose that lovin’ feeling and with it is lost the essential fact—the password to your past.

Not like you have a key to the future either. What is harder than forgetting what you never thought you had to memorise is realising you have no idea how you will feel in the future. You don’t really really know how you will feel about having grey hair or whether you will be the person who begins a sentence with “no daughter of mine…” or someone who says to themselves, “I accept the possibility of going to jail this year.”

Trying to imagine how you will feel in the future is much like trying to feel hungry a second after a large meal. At that point even the thought of food makes you feel like the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But then some hours later there you are, feeling enthusiastic again. As much as it is wonderful to live in the present, oh how tiresome the present is sometimes. And how hard it is to remember that the future has a reasonably good chance of being not like the present and that it might even be reasonably good. Yet we can approach the future with wisdom from Stefan Thomas, the German engineer who says he has accepted his Schrodinger’s bitcoin situation, who says “time heals all wounds”. Now if only we had an encryption device to survive the present.

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger. Her first book of fiction, The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories, was released in August.

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