We are the first generation who will grow old on the Internet.
There’s an old discussion in fiction, particularly in science fiction or particular supernatural fiction such as that featuring vampires: what does immortality do to a person? Oh, I know, having the Internet doesn’t mean that we are immortal, but it makes all of us eidetic from a certain point of view.
Previous generations could see memories fade to sepia legend. Every generation was this way, the past was a foreign country, one to which you could look at old photos but never visit. But even photos were a sea change for memory. Suddenly the past was captured like magic, preserved as if in a bottle. For all of human history we had little tricks, the portraits and marble sculptures, but those were the realm of the rich. Memory was a luxury that photography made democratic, put in the hands of normal people.
And before that, there were only the physical things, the mementos. Physical things mattered as touchstones: the old piles of books, the inherited whatsits, the detritus of the past that memory drenched with ghosts. A piece of junk to anyone else will hold still to the right person that slightest whiff of transporting scent, or that particular texture to the wood that sends you back in time. Our objects were the triggers for our memories. For they were the only thing we had outside of our decaying minds.
Ah, but even things are something of a modern contrivance. The peasants for those long millennia, breaking their backs, lucky to even have a trinket to their names. To them memory was only in one’s mind, and in the stories told to each other to make the memory fasten tight.
Today though, we live in a world of such a glut of information that we everywhere are in the presence of infinite layers of memory. Every day more photos are uploaded to Facebook than exist in all of human history prior to 1990. Unimaginable mountains of text are stored and archived like diaries in which the pages will never curl.
The memories still fade of course, our minds are not so changed, but the way we remember must change since all of our touchstones have. We have an infinity of pictures that don’t have the grace to fade and discolor with time, to allow our memories to fill in the blanks with the narratives that we create out of our lives. We can just keep scrolling down the timeline and see everything we ever said, without even the print having faded. Our digital lives mean that we live in an eternal present, the past never being more than a click away in high definition and with perfect recall. The face we see in the mirror is the aging portrait while all of our memories stay eternally young.
There’s an old argument about identity, in the vein of Theseus’ ship, over whether we are the sum of our past, or whether we are something distinct from path dependency. I’d posit that who we are is a set of illusions that we construct to make a narrative of the memories that have stuck in place. For some of us that’s a narrative of delusion, whether of grandeur or self deprecation, but it’s never factual even if it might be true. And every photo we take, every post we make, every little digital footprint we leave that will never fade is another data point.
Those data points might not be accurate, after all lying with statistics is a time honored tradition, but they will each be marginally limiting. They limit and confine the narrative we tell, until in a perfect Orwellian world there is no longer any narrative of our lives in our minds, just a dull procession of perfectly recalled facts.
I’m not a luddite, far from it, but I wonder if we are losing the poetry of our memories as the prose becomes clearer.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.