Notifications still remind us of things we’d rather forget

My breaking point with promotional emails and desktop alerts finally happened a few weeks ago. I woke up at 7 a.m. to an automated email from with my friend’s obituary in the subject line. The email itself was annoying enough, but what it said made it a cold, thoughtless annoyance: “Being remembered matters. The flowers you sent last year were a reassuring gesture of sympathy and support.”

I didn’t send flowers. I planted a tree. That’s what my friend wanted. It was right there in the guestbook asking me to sign again.

Actually, the email from was just the last straw. Things were kicked off a few months earlier by a Microsoft OneDrive notification. I had just switched from Google Drive and instead of creating a new email address, I used an old Hotmail account that had been linked to my Xbox account for over a decade. If you had told me there were photos in the cloud storage of that email, I wouldn’t have believed you. I would swear in advance that I have never used cloud storage under that email address. But a day after I updated my subscription, an “On This Day” reminder message appeared.

I clicked on it – and oh yes, it was That an error. Microsoft OneDrive wanted me to remember one of the darkest times of my life by shoving photos of an abusive ex in my face—photos I’d forgotten existed. In a fit of rage, I erased all those photos from digital existence and canceled my OneDrive subscription. There are some things you don’t need to be reminded of because you will never forget them.

Notifications can invade every moment of our lives and fight for our attention without tact. Yes, we can disable them or click “unsubscribe” on emails that never made it to the spam folder, but the point is that they shouldn’t happen in the first place. Would we be okay with a stranger holding up a sign that said, “Hey! Do you remember when your friend died? as they ran towards us in a cemetery? Would we accept our ex-partner shouting, “It should have been me!” in the middle of our wedding ceremony? There are plenty of intrusive thoughts going through my head every day. I don’t need an algorithm that amplifies them because it mathematically concludes that I want to see what it wants to show me.

On the other hand, notifications, like all technology, are tools. Receiving too much can distract and overwhelm us, but we can forget something important if we receive too little. And while we have some ability to customize what notifications we get, the companies that make these apps don’t have much incentive to hand over control because they want us to use their products as much as possible. (Seriously, Duolingo, relax. You don’t have to cry over my missed Klingon class.) Complicating things further is the fact that you have to figure out which buttons to tap in your settings to find the best middle ground between what notifications you want and which ones deserve the silent treatment.

I’ve now reined in the notifications on my smartphone (largely by buying a ‘dumb phone’), but emails and cloud storage alerts have stuck around like an endless game Crazy Gator – even though I don’t remember signing up for most of them. And the moment they pop up, it’s easier for me to ignore them than to figure out how to turn them off for good. I always meant to dive into my email and cloud drive settings, but a week turned into a month, then a month turned into a year – and now I have 414 active email subscriptions and a cloud drive that I never log into because I’m afraid it will break. -ups.

But there’s something more shameful about using your own photos and memories (even the good ones) to get your attention. It’s useful to save them to the cloud, even if you turn off all “On This Day” notifications. But that cloud is a server owned by a tech company that can lock you out of your memories if you cancel your subscription. What then?

An extreme solution by today’s standards is to store everything on an external drive that no one else can access but you. You lose the convenience of access from any device, anywhere, but you gain something much better in return: privacy. So that’s where I’ll keep all my photos from now on. I’ve been avoiding getting a NAS because it seems like too much work, but it would be nice to still be able to access my stuff from anywhere. I’m done dealing with emotionally unaware algorithms and automated emails that feign sympathy to get me to interact with websites. My memories are not marketing tools.