One of those things that I do during the end of year break is to tidy things up. Tidy up the garage, the office, and the various computers and storage devices in the house. Digital historical artefacts have become a thing now – photos and home movies especially – and making sure that they are backed up, either on physical hardware or in a reliable cloud somewhere is not straightforward. It led me to consider why we collect these things.
Photographs as a tool for memorialising people, things and occasions are a relatively recent phenomenon, of course. Prior to that there were portraits for the well-to-do, diaries for the melancholy, poetry for the heroic, and not much else. This had the effect of speeding things up, and hastening the consignment of the past to its place in history. Forgetting was easier. Now, supposing that my pictures from the 2000s survive (triple backed up in physical and virtual devices as they now are), perhaps in our dotage we can look back and reminisce about some of the great dogs we had, the holidays we took, and so on. These images may trigger memories, which might be nice, in a nostalgic sort of way. It’s not something we would have been able to do as recently as forty or fifty years ago; I have only a handful of photos of my parents from the 1980s, for example.
This stretching of memory, the stretching of time, is a new thing. In an age where we are being accused of developing short attention spans, where information is at the speed of light, and news cycles are super-fast, we are at the same time insisting upon the preservation of the present, and not just living for the moment (though our decadent individualism demands this too), but persisting the moment for as long we can. Time is no longer something that shuffles along; it is compartmentalised, frozen, recorded. We cannot forget, we are not allowed to forget; forgetting is somehow indecent.
And yet our present, our essence, our identity is made from all of those memories, some stronger, some weaker, and other experiences forgotten in their detail, but not in their lesson. This projection of moments and encounters in a plasticised form into the future impacts on that memorial function, slowing everything down, and pulling us back into the past, preventing our forward trajectory.
Our social media, our computer power, our technological advancement – it presents itself as more connected, more colourful, more immediate, and, true, it is all of those things. Is it more real? Is it in some objective sense better? Who is to say. It is definitely new. Maybe we’ll fight less – though it doesn’t seem that that’s the case, at least based on domestic experience and political polarization. Maybe we’ll be wealthier – though inequality is rising, and general wages are stagnant when adjusted for inflation. Maybe we’ll be healthier – though for all our innovation, there are millions dead from Covid as I write, and life expectancy hasn’t changed much in the last while; it’s even decreased in some places in the last few years, including the US and the UK.
These machines make a virtue of remembering. It’s not entirely clear that this was a problem that needed to be solved.