Towards a geography of digital memory

I’m in Toronto for a lightning trip, speaking tomorrow at a luncheon hosted by Women in Film & Television. Tonight I’m staying at the Sutton Place Hotel, which puts me at the epicentre of memory for my first 25 years of life. From the east-facing window of my suite I look down the barrel of Wellesley Street, which ends in the park that my childhood home adjoined. From the south-facing window I see the Ontario government office block where Rob worked when we first met, long before we got married. If I craned my head out to look west, I’d be looking at the blocks leading to my high school and all the tortured memories that are now locked away within its walls. And if I could look almost due north, I could see the former location of the ice cream cone where Rob and I ate the day we first had lunch together, across from the museum where we were later married.

The geography of memory is powerful and inescapable. There’s no way for me to sit at the corner of Wellesley and Bay Street without feeling utterly overwhelmed by the cumulative personal history that lies within these few square kilometres. At age 40, those memories bring a shocking and somewhat painful awareness of how far distant these memories mostly lie, both in years and in emotional immediacy; the very fact that they no longer hold the same heat or clarity is a reminder of how long ago these events took place. With that tangible connection to the passing of time comes the brutal, blessed awareness of what it means to make each day count, and to use well the years that lie ahead.

If walking down a once-familiar street can discipline us in the art of living fully, what happens when our memories no longer lie in streets to which we can return? Geek though I be, my memories are mostly embedded in the physical spaces that presently surround me: my childhood home (where I used my first computer); the Queen’s Park legislature (where I met my husband on the online chat network); the local pub (where a group of us convened the meeting that established Canada’s first online political network).

As our world and culture move online, it will be the digital experiences that take the foreground, and the geographic locations that fade to the back. Do you remember where you sat when you first logged onto Facebook — and would you be nostalgic to return to that same desk? Do you remember where you were when you wrote you first tweet? Which computer you were using the day you met your digital BFF?

Our digital spaces might themselves hold the same evocative power as the geographic spaces to which we now attach, but unlike physical locations, we are much less likely to revisit them. Have you used the Internet Archive to visit your old Geocities page and enjoy a whiff of nostalgia? Looked for a screen capture of the AOL login screen? Listened to a recording of the sound your 2400-baud modem made as it established its tentative connection to the net?

While our digital lives are much easier to preserve and much harder to erase than the specifics of any given cityscape, we are far less likely to discover emotional resonance through the happenstance of wandering onto the digital terrain of our youth. A website, once razed, no longer has a location to which you can feel attachment; nobody notices that the URL they are visiting represents an I.P. address that used to belong to their favorite blog. Online, what’s gone is gone, and even what remains — technically — may be just as invisible if we never visit, and it never pops up in search results.

What anchors can we create, I wonder, to provide some emotional endurance to our most meaningful digital moments? Perhaps Facebook’s Timeline is a start, giving you a way to wander down your digital memory lane and remember the funny site you once liked or shared.

But the emotional memories that have the power to shock us into recognizing the passage of time — to recognize how brief and precious today really is — are not the memories that we carefully curate. They are the memories we stumble across, or stumble into, someplace as impermanent as a one-night hotel room.

Why we need to remember life before the Internet

“What did kids do before there were iPads?” our kids asked us last week. This question was astonishing not just as an indicator of how central the iPad has become to our family life, but of how incredibly short our kids’ memories are.

“What do you mean, ‘kids’?” I replied. “What did you guys do before the iPad?”

With a little prodding, our kids were able to recall the distant memory of their lives 13 months ago, as if forcing themselves to relive an early childhood trauma around which their subconscious had erected a barely penetrable wall. I pushed them still further.

“You know, you’re not just older than the iPad…you’re both older than the iPhone!”

At this point, their minds were well and truly blown. Our younger child may predate the 2007 arrival of the iPhone by nearly a year, but a world without perpetually available, pocket-size entertainment is beyond his grasp. Even his big sister can’t remember those dark days when she had to amuse herself in restaurants with something as primitive as crayons and the back of a menu.

Subway-style map shows popular tech companies and websites

Snipped from a map of the 2007 Internet as a subway system, by Information Architects Japan. (Click to view full map.)

Their relationship to the chronology of the iPhone is a miniaturized version of the process I’ve been through in the past month. OK, so I’m technically older than CNN, email and the graphical user interface, but I can barely remember a world without them. So many of the anniversary dates I’ve discovered in my retrospective have startled me with their newness, or conversely, their distance: did we really get our first computer only a year after Canada got properly online? Was there really a moment when we could have avoided the horrors of the animated gif? Have people really been pontificating about the rules of netiquette for 28 years?

My incredulity stems from the difficulty of recollecting what life was really like before I spent half of it online. The pre-Internet world now feels as distant as a foreign planet or ancient civilization.

Just as I want my kids to comprehend the possibility of Apple-free amusement, I strive to hold onto a few small elements of continuity with my pre-tech life. I juggle time zones so that I can enjoy extended phone calls with a handful of my dearest long-distance friends, even though emails and Twitter would make it easier to keep in touch. I still read novels on actual paper. I do a little bit of sewing and a little bit of cooking so that I retain a few practical skills that don’t involve a keyboard or an Internet connection.

These are old-fashioned activities that I love, but holding onto them increasingly feels like a virtue as well as a pleasure. Bombarded with dire warnings about how the Internet is disrupting our families, our relationships and our capacity for self-entertainment, there is increasingly a sense of nobility in cultivating a few offline interests. In part, the capacity to sever from the hive mind feels like a sign of spiritual or emotional depth, the way a passion for opera or Greek poetry used to signal one’s cultural sophistication.  But the preservation of an offline self can also feel like a form of noblesse oblige, a heritage that we are safeguarding for today’s kids, and tomorrow’s.

At (nearly) age 40, I’m part of the last generation — in the developed world, anyhow — that will have a significant bank of pre-Internet memories. If my 30-year-old friends even remember when their family got its first computer, it’s because they remember the thrill of playing Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? When their kids inquire (with a  mix of curiosity and revulsion) about life in the pre-iPhone, pre-Playstation, pre-Google world, they will at best regale them with tales of pixellated video games and ill-programmed Barbies.

When I told my kids about life before iPad I told them about a time when I played hide-and-seek in the local park. I told them about building Barbie houses out of shoe boxes. I told them about reading book after book, just for fun.

And I told them about being frequently, painfully bored. I was an only child in a world of 7 TV channels and no Internet, and it wasn’t especially fun. If I’m a fast reader and a decent writer it may be thanks to all the times I escaped into a novel, but if I’m a compulsive multi-tasker it may be that I’m making up for all those times when there was nothing to do at all. I don’t romanticize the kind of childhood that predated Tivo and videogames, but I recognize that my memories of a pre-tech world include a few experiences worth saving.

We are in the early stages of a massive cultural negotiation over how technology will be assimilated into our  work, our personal lives, our identities and even our bodies. As we dive into that negotiation process, we will need to draw upon values, practices and mindsets that pre-date the Internet so that we can bring the best of the old into our life with the new. Choosing at least three areas of your life that you refuse to digitize can be your contribution to this warehouse of offline experience, your own personal archival selection from The Land Before Internet Time.

Dittos remind us of the pleasures of obsolescence

In 1976 I was in kindergarten, and like any five-year-old looked forward to the high point of each day: the arrival of our latest ditto-ed handout. For those of you under 30, let me explain that a ditto (similar to a mimeo) was a purple-inked paper used to mass-produce in-class exercises, and in the over-12 set, used for church newsletters and other low-circulation, low-budget publications. As soon as the dittos were handed out, we held them up to our faces and inhaled deeply: the smell of happiness, and as it turns out, methanol.

You over-30s, take note of the fact that I had to explain this item from our collective archive. Over the past few years I’ve had a few thirtysomethings stare at me blankly when I made a passing reference to dittos. When I started school, the ditto and its ancestors had been captivating children for a full century: in fact, the mimeograph was invented by none other than Thomas Edison in 1876. But just ten years after I inhaled my first ditto in kindergarten, the ditto was more or less extinct (at least in North America), overtaken by the photocopier and the computer printer. Today’s 28-year-old American has never enjoyed the intoxicating high of methanol in the morning.

Woman using ditto machine in 1943

No, I'm not this old. But talking with a 25-year-old about dittos sure makes me feel like it. (Photo from the Navy Historical Center.)

The lowly classroom handout is like a radar gun for the speed of change. I’m not even 40 (yet), and I can play a very respectable game of “when I was a boy….” OK, so sniffing mimeos isn’t quite as dramatic as walking three miles to school through the proverbial snowdrifts. But when my mother was 39, there were only three everyday technologies that had become obsolete in her lifetime: passenger ships, telegrams and pantyhose.

As a 39-year-old in 2011, I can rattle off a list of obsolete technologies as long as my arm (partly thanks to the good folks at PC World). Faxes, floppy disks, polaroids, rotary phones, records, answering machines, cassette tapes, typewriters, camera film, the Sony Walkman.

Or more recently: Mosaic, usenet, magnolia, Friendster, Pets.com, Napster, geoCities, Flooz, SixDegrees, Digg, eToys, MySpace, the WELL, Google Wave. Sure, some of them are still around, but even they are ghosts of their former selves.

Our lives online have accelerated the pace of obsolescence because the next thing is now only a click away. And I’m the first person to to click, to look around the corner, to crane my neck for whatever’s new. The privilege of living in an era in which a century-old technology can be replaced in a decade, and a ten-year-old technology replaced in a year, is that we get to delight in a constant stream of novelty.

And we get to enjoy our lost technologies too. I can still remember the silky-slick texture of a fax curling between my fingers, the scrape of a needle across a scratched record, the thud of my Walkman as it rattled against my waist. Ask anyone who’s even roughly my age to talk about polaroids or rotary phones or mix tapes and you will hear memories of waiting for the picture to appear (huddled around the snapshot), memories of the clicking that the phone made (as the dial spun back to its home position), memories of listening to that first collection of Bruce Springsteen B-sides (in the car with the window rolled down so you could sing along). They’re visceral memories, made up of our physical interactions with these long-gone objects and the people with whom we shared them.

It’s harder to summon nostalgia for the treasures we’ve lost online. First of all, they’re never gone: they’re as close as a Google search, or if that fails, the Internet archive.And second, they were never here in the first place: they were always out there somewhere in the digital ether, visible only through the window of our computer screen. They’re hard to conjure up because we never formed those sensory memories. All I can recall of geocities is some bad html and a sense of persistent annoyance.

As we spend more and more of our lives online we will experience a faster and faster pace of change, yet fewer and fewer delightful memories of technologies past. We’ll have the challenges of continual reinvention without the pleasures of retrospection. We’ll have the opportunity to connect online through the latest social network, but lose the opportunity to connect offline through common reminiscences. Even though we’re 8 years apart, my husband and I can trade recollections of typewriters, floppy disks and dittos. A 20-year-old has grown up in a completely different world from a 28-year-old.

Without our visceral memories to connect us later we need visceral experiences to connect us now. My colleague Nancy White introduced me to the idea of listening to a common piece of music at the beginning of a text chat session: it puts all the participants in the same mental space. You can open two bottles of the same wine, one in each city, while you Skype with a friend. We may even be able to tie our digital experiences to that most powerful of memory-triggers, scent.

Anchoring our online experiences in our offline physicality will do more than enhance our online interactions, of course. Every step we take to create a more tangible online connection is one that makes it more memorable, too. And we’ll know we’ve succeeded if we use our future networks to reminisce about Facebook the way we use Facebook to remember the smell of dittos.