At first, when we got cell phones, we remarked at how we didn’t have to remember phone numbers anymore. Now we don’t have to remember faces. Now we don’t even have to remember the things that happen to us. Our Timelines do that for us, our instagrams and videos and Soundclouds do that for us—memories recorded as soon as the moment falls, as the moment falls, so instantaneously, that sometimes we are hardly there, hardly present. Recorded in a sound bite that makes it “universal” and accessible, already an instance of an arm of humanity, recorded with the tools that take care of memory for us. Categorize it. Is it a “key event”? A moment of sadness? An instance of success? Please, choose a label lest we find no place for it in our collective electronic file cabinet.
I do not even have to remember the date of my birth anymore. It is already on my Facebook Timeline, and a hundred people remember it for me because they are told to wish me a happy birthday. They comply. And though I still can remember my own birthday without checking, I hardly need to, and, after all, is my birthday really more important than yours? Weren’t a thousand people dying the day I was born and another thousand born as well? Are my key memories really more important than yours, or even all that different from yours? Why remember anything that happened to ME and not to YOU? Why remember anything at all?
Though I hyperbolize there is a kernel of truth that has taken me to another place. Memories, when recorded, become static. Writers experience this when we write memoir—the memory becomes static in the version that gets written, while prior to the writing the memory remains an amorphous and dynamic cesspool of influence and input. Once written, it’s taken care of, allows for putting on the shelf, allows for letting go. Writing can be therapeutic in this way, though sometimes, deceptive if our memory stagnates with the stamp of writing.
Now by our instantaneous recording and capturing of memories in an Instagram or summarizing character-limited Tweet, we fix our memories and let them go much sooner. Not to say we remember nothing, but is it possible that our modern circumstance actually is changing the functioning of our brains so that our brains learn to capture and retain information differently?
I know that our new forms of communication are changing my memory and brain functioning, much as waitressing did—though it may seem to be a petty comparison—it required a different length of memory capture, retain and recall than ordinary social interaction. I certainly shouldn’t remember what every table the entire night through wants for the entire duration of the night—that would become confusing—rather I should remember a table’s wishes just long enough to recall in its proper time.
Now we find there is so much more information to absorb and remember that it seems our brains have more work to do to choose WHAT to retain. “Naturally,” we have prioritized our own memories over the things that happened to US (collectively, e.g. as a people, as a nation); certainly we’ve prioritized our memories over memories that happened to others (read: not US), but now, in this post binary stage, it is becoming harder to decide who and what to remember and our experiences are becoming much more mixed into the memory soup. Was that his status or mine? Her tweet or mine? RT RT HER TWEET OR MINE? Does it matter at all? I am on a train from Malmö to Stockholm, but I could be just as easily on a train from Detroit to Chicago. No one really cares—both have been done countless times before by some member of the human race. And perhaps—there is progress in this theoretical soup of experience.
Perhaps what I am saying sounds callous, automaton, even frightening, but we have a choice about how to perceive our digital age and how to utilize our tools. Up until now we have been preoccupied with measurements of time and size and distance. We are preoccupied with modernist ideas like development and progress. “Things get better with time.” Work is improved and made more efficient with development over time. The answer could be in downsizing or upgrading. We grapple with questions like, how is society adapting to the way that our technological tools are growing smaller? Will they live as a chip under our skin? Some have lamented the increasingly shortened length of communication from letter to fax to email to tweet. (In any case, I still write long emails like letters; many people do). But this change of message format is only lamentable when we think of history as linear, of progress as quantitative. Some have suggested that we will catch our memory recall growing so short and our tools of memory growing so small that finally we will decide to “back track”—in any number of countless ways; that more people will be buying books instead of Kindls, that we’ll hunger for the phone with a long cord attached to the wall. Many have suggested that at some point we will rebel and decide that we need to back to the days of giant mobile phones, for example, or that we’ll simply buy larger cars or want for large pieces of information. We speak of our distances as being shorter (because we can fly a plane there in an hour, or perhaps because we can skype with our friends so easily, watch them live.) We speak of time as being minimized because we are constant receivers of messages from far away lands, and we can reply in the blink of an eye.
I can’t help but think that, while these questions of measurement may be quite fascinating, they are not quite getting us to the transformative place. They may have to do with “progress” but do they have to do with “transformation,” with “transgression”?
It would seem that size, distance, time, all these forms of measurement are merely relative questions. If we consider our own size, we realize quite easily that there are billions of things—literally billions of things—smaller than us. Perhaps there are even “worlds” living in an atom, worlds we cannot see. Certainly as well we already know that we are on one planet in a galaxy of millions of stars. We are one galaxy in a million galaxies. There are billions of things larger than us. Are we right in the “middle” or are we merely somewhere in an infinite continuum? Scientists speak of “parallel” universes or other universes. In this meta-space, certainly the size of a cellular phone versus a wall phone is irrelevant. Surely the length of a human life, in relation to the life of the universe, is irrelevant. Surely the distance from my house to yours, is irrelevant when we consider the distance from the sun to a sun in a far distant galaxy. This is not to say there is no real distance, but rather to say, we are located somewhere on a great infinite span of what we think of as “distance” or “time”, but measurement is surely only a relative perspective from our limited eye. Is it a great indicator? What if the decreasing size of a mobile phone, of a computer, of a thought, of a memory, is merely a convenient kind of illusion? When we think of their size relative to the size of the universe, are they any size at all? Shall we grow nostalgic based on size?
And perhaps rather than thinking that we will either grow smaller, or grow larger, we could imagine that we will jump into something else entirely. Telepathy. Human interaction. Spirituality. Loss of ego.
What if we think not of the size of our writings—how long or short they are—or the ownership of our memories—who they belong or don’t belong to—but realize their collectivity? Not that we will forget who we love or the day our child was born, but … All those babies online, all those dates and those and pictures and numbers … If we take it to hyperbole, the sense that we do have a collective memory could be a strong lesson for our ego // we are ONE human, we are one human experience, we are the cyborg and finally we are realizing our true insignificance as individuals (our true smallness). And through this limitless smallness… the possibility for significance as living life?
Listening to a podcast about Story Corps
In this way we really walk this balance between experiencing a collective memory and experiencing an individual one. Once all these unique voices are compiled in the Library of Congress, who’s to say my memory is not that of an immigrant, a slave, a mother, a factory worker, a business man, a politician, a train engineer.
“Every voice matters”—Story Corps says—and yet every voice doesn’t matter, not in the history of the universe. And yet again, every voice matters. And yet mine is like yours. Practically speaking the same as yours. And yet “different,” if we inspect the minutia, what lies in the details. This is the paradox that life is constantly revealing to us.
We’ve spent years fighting appropriation, identifying ownership, obsessed with authenticity of voice, of story, of experience, but if the story EXISTS, if the memory EXISTS, what does it matter to whom it belongs? Our planet, as large as it is, is one of billions of planets. We might as well be one human on one planet. One human memory. One human birth date. One human death.
How can we use this hyperbole to help us find identification with all stories, to let go our ownership, to find aliveness in all lives, to relating to all lives?
16 February 2012
The far snowy field from Malmö to Stockholm