The Future of Memory

My friend Bob wrote me:

Graham sent me a book which is the collected letters of JRR Tolkien.  It is really interesting when he tells the publisher who wants him to write a sequel to The Hobbit that he is out of ideas and The Hobbit ends in a way that admits no sequel – he lived happily ever after. The other thing that stuck me is that in this day of email no one keeps emails as permanent records. My ones from several years ago on the Mac I can’t even open. So we won’t have these kinds of records in the future. We have become a culture of transient immediacy. Oh well.

How interesting to know that JRR Tolkien, who surely possessed one of the largest imaginations of the twentieth century, could not see that The Hobbit’s story had barely begun. How long, I wonder, did it take before that seed could begin to sprout into The Lord of the Rings?

If Tolkien saw his own future so poorly, how well can we predict how our lives will be remembered? I am not so sure about the disappearance of correspondence as a permanent record. It may turn out to be the opposite:  reservoirs of trivial correspondence (emails) so vast that nobody can find time to sort through them. I love the fact that, with the advent of gmail, google has all my correspondence on their computers, and that using their search functions I can find almost anything in seconds. And I assume the computer wizards there will keep it accessible however computer programs may change. And surely they feel obliged not to throw it all out with the trash! But not that many of my emails will be of great interest to future generations. (And what about my blog? Will these words be preserved? For how long? And by whom? And to what end?)

My mother was a trenchant correspondent, and she saved many of her letters going back to childhood. My sister Elizabeth has taken on the task of collecting and organizing them chronologically into multiple thick volumes. I’ve enjoyed immensely sitting down and reading through these. The letters bring my parents to life, not only in what they say and in the chronicle of what happened, but in the stationery they used and the handwriting they usually employed. These letters are artifacts, in a way that emails (let alone facebook walls and blog posts) can never be.

Even so, there are a lot of letters, and I doubt I will ever find time to read them all. So I find it very difficult to imagine my children ever having the interest or stamina to go through my emails.

The transformation of family photographs is even more striking. In rural Kenyan homes you almost always find a small collection of framed pictures hung up in the living room. Typically, they are studio shots in black and white in which the subject stares at the camera as though waiting to be executed.

Our great grandparents had a similar set of photographs. The “family pictures” were few in number. Perhaps there were enough to collect in a small album. But family members knew them all by heart.

Then along came the portable camera, and when we got to my generation there began to accumulate boxes and drifts of photos. Some people collected some of those photos in carefully labeled albums, but for me—and for most people, I suspect—the photos outran them. It is wonderful to have such a complete photographic record, and sometimes we take great delight in looking through some of them (usually encountered when we clean out a closet) and remembering how young we all once looked. Mostly, though, they are remote to us. They stay in the closet. I suspect my children will one day throw them all out. If not, my grandchildren almost certainly will.

And now, in the last decade, we have started storing almost all our photos on computers, trading them via email and websites and facebook accounts. I already have so many on my computer that it takes my iphoto program forever to load. Who has time to look at them? They are easy to take, easy to store—but we get lost in the crowd. The photos function as transient phenomena, like sensory impressions, more than as permanent artifacts.

What does this mean? One problem of modern existence is distraction. Electronic media make it easy for us to bombard ourselves with information and entertainment, and never to reflect very deeply. More is not always more, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the multiplication of written communications and family photographs that are lost to memory within a week after they are made.

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One Response to “The Future of Memory”

  1. Mark Medin Says:

    Tim – over the last several years, I have found that I relate less and less to taking photos of family or events. I don’t know exactly what triggered it, but I came to the conclusion that photos, videos and the like can interfere with my capacity to simply remember. Ultimately, the value we find in photos and videos is the associations they make, the emotional connections, not the literal record. Those associations are rooted in memory. I can still be attracted to photos and such, but I would rather let the entire experience come from my memory, let those neural and emotional connections continue to grow in me over time.

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