After a month-long break from quasi-social engagements on Instagram (read: mindless scrolling), I re-downloaded the app today. The reason for that was that a friend showed me how I could access past stories I had uploaded on the app. This sparked my curiosity to take a virtual journey through time and see how many and what sort of things I have witnessed and deemed worthy or funny enough to share with my followers.
At first, I was nostalgic. The more of these stories I watched, the more intense a feeling of homesickness grew, along with the acknowledgment of how ephemeral time really is. I could have sworn that stories of certain events which transpired three years ago happened more recently. Other stories I had trouble categorizing or even remembering for myself. Towards the end, I was relieved that I was made aware of this in-app feature; a blast from the past in form of a digital archive.
The story feature is not unique to Instagram; Snapchat was the first app whose sole purpose was to either send short videos to specific friends or record stories on your profile for everyone to watch and comment if they wanted to. It seemed like a quicker and more engaging method to interact with friends. One could say, it seemed more personal than a text. Additionally, each ‘snap’ (or ‘story’, in the case of Instagram) was saved to your account. With each snap or story capturing a memory and the in-apps function to store them, the notion of an archive seems to have gained more prominence in apps over the last few years.
With the technology that we have nowadays, the possibility to store more information digitally than we could ever preserve in our heads or write down on paper seems alluring. Suddenly, every moment that can be saved, also should be saved. Apps like Facebook even set up nostalgic little reminders: users will be notified of pictures they have uploaded or stati they have posted years back in the form of “On this day X many years ago, you uploaded this picture”. The question is, besides evoking a nostalgic feeling in us about past happenings that we enjoyed or cared about or awakening us to the glooming notion how quickly time flies, can the digital archive as a tool for preservation of personal memory also bear negative characteristics?
Databases and Archives
In order to answer this question, I will refer to the book Staging the Archive by Ernst van Alphen. He states that “the role of narrative is declining [while] the role of archive, in a variety of forms, is increasing.” Lev Manovich takes this notion a step further: in the post-modern age, he observes how that transition of the cultural expression from narrative to archive finally manifests itself in the shape of the database. This does not only apply to digital infrastructural systems that govern integral processes in the world (post office, security, transportation etc.) but affects your private hub as well, as I have exemplified at the beginning. In the age of computers, “the database […] becomes the predominant center of creative processes that are deployed to make sense of human experience, cultural memory, and the world in general.”
Saving for the Sake of Saving
The consequence of such archives (alias databases) is quite simple: something else is doing the remembering for us. And because we rely on its capabilities to store every minutia of our lives, we do not necessitate our brain to actively engage with information it receives, with moments that are deemed precious – because we can record and store them and rewatch them later. However, we will never be able to fully relive those memories; at least not the same extent and the equal emotions that captured as had we put our phone away and taken a picture or two after the memorable event passed – to have as a memory aid, not so much a piece that entirely stands in for the memory itself. Ask yourself: have you ever rewatched any of the videos you took at a concert? Or pictures of architectural feats that were marvelous enough for you to want to store in your phone in order to not forget about having seen them, only to then realize, upon coming across that picture in your phone, that you perhaps cannot even remember where it was taken? I have even seen women stopping their boyfriends mid-proposal just to grab their phone and record him – and that’s, frankly, sad to watch.
Such a deliberate “passive remembering”, as it is called by the cultural theorists Jan and Aleida Assmann, really extrapolates personal involvement in the memory making process. Our brain already passively preserves memories which it does not deem important enough – why would we then want to have a device preserve those for us anyway? Besides, if we rely on in-app functions and devices to store everything for us, every memory will eventually become a passive one; even those we would like to actively preserve. Sure, it is certainly convenient that we can store more information than we can think of, but let’s be frank: do we truly have to record and store everything? Are the storage functions in apps, generally put, not a bit unnecessary, considering how most of those saved snippets from our lives are really just that: snippets not evoking grand emotions. In the end, it feels as if it’s all merging into one giant amalgam of moments, a “blob” of sounds and colors, anyway.
A Little Plea
Perhaps I’m a cynic. Perhaps my notion that we archive too many memories which are not as noteworthy comes across as bitter. Perhaps people make use of memory preservation services precisely because they are aware of how fleeting their lives on this planet are and they want to save every moment, convinced they’ll rejoice in rewatching all of them once they’re elderly and have nothing else to do besides reminiscing – fine, that is a fair point. Nonetheless, I’ll leave with a plea: we do not need to save every moment. Devices and apps do not have to be “burdened” with passive remembering; give your brain a break and its cognitive capabilities back to discern useful from useless information. I guarantee you, even in your autumn or winter years, you will not want to rumble through a mountain of memories you can barely identify yourselves with but will be glad to immediately have access to those that you cherished the most.
Ernst van Alphen, Staging the Archive (London: Reaktion Books, 2014), 7-13.
Aleida Assmann, “Canon and Archive” in Media and Cultural Memory, ed. Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning (Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 2008), 97-107.
Thank you for this blog post! Your connection between social media archives and Lev Manovich’s notion of the database is really interesting. I completely agree that sometimes we should put our phones down and simply enjoy the moment because, in that we, we would likely also remember it better since half our attention wouldn’t be on our phones. If we focus, not on capturing the moment, but on immersing ourselves in it then we can also rely on sensory information to call it back later.
Wonderfully written! I especially liked your section titled ‘Databases and Archives’. It really made me think to H.G. Wells’ “The World Brain”, and how the technologically facilitated compendium of human knowledge can extend to documenting our own lives. While the ability to capture moments in time has been possible for decades, our current ability to record and access memories is unprecedented. We could basically curate and populate entire encyclopedias on ourselves, and then store them in a cloud for posterity. Is that really living?
This is me every ten weeks or so deleting a gazillion images of my dog sleeping.