Issue #55, The Memoir Issue
The Perils of Perfect Memory
The New Past, According to Social Media
The Perils of Perfect Memory
Like most people these days, I willingly deposit bits of myself online every day, through shopping, commenting on friends’ photos, posting pithy quips, and engaging in my newly found hobby of reviewing recent purchases. Isolated, these activities are disconnected material; woven together, they make me part of a new, vast community of casual storytellers. Despite their careless, seemingly ephemeral character, however, these stories have a new flavor of permanence, and material has never been so easily accessible to writers. Sites like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram remind us and our followers where and how we have been, all the while creating parallel universes through our daily posts. The vast and specific nature of our online information has the capacity to behave as a spontaneous external hard drive to our own memories. We can have—increasingly, can’t escape having—instant access to our past, seemingly bypassing the natural remembering process. Our hippocampus, it seems, can live on the web.
Of course, future accessibility to the information we etch online, especially on social media, will vary depending upon who does the archiving. Yet as data storage becomes less expensive, the capacity capabilities grow and so does the amount of information held online. After all, in order to serve our needs, the web must have infallible and non-perishable memory.
Certainly, this trove of online information will be a tantalizing and highly useful resource for future biographers and narrative nonfiction writers. And yet, for the memoirist, a source of indelible online information could be problematic.
Digital omnipresence shortens and stunts the distance to remembering—the crucial engine for memoir. Molded in the narrative nonfiction writer’s hands, memory creates stories and feeds a compulsion to reflect on, understand, and validate personal experiences. The organic experience of remembering is still enveloped in mystery. Memoirists have a soft spot for that mystery, but we should concede that digital content will make the past, in some ways, less mysterious.
Some, like Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, see the infallible memory of the web as a big problem: “Because of digital technology, society’s ability to forget has become suspended, replaced by perfect memory.” Alas, memoir informed by perfect memory would, I fear, lose its sensory appeal. Web memories might alter the memoirist’s process, not only by providing infallible instant memory but also by usurping our own natural recollection processes.
Mayer-Schönberger also argues that that our online interactions make us feel watched and that, even if we are not in fact under surveillance, the sensation of being watched leads us to self-censor. In fact, writers online are often being watched—or, at least, seen—by readers. This, too, is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, social media, in particular, can help writers find a wider audience—that “platform” publishers are always talking about. Ideally, this audience will be invested in the work—but it could also be dissonant from it. For better and worse, the web arms us with accidental connections.
Of course, if you’re writing about your contemporaries, odds are good they’re hanging around online, too, and maybe also watching you. Those characters—who in an earlier time might have been lost to us—travel across oceans and different decades to engage passively with our own recollections. They can disagree with our memories, question them, and, over time, even change them. They are unwelcome guests on e-mail, Facebook, or through the dream-like images of Instagram. We know what our college roommates, from thirty years ago, ate for breakfast this morning, and it can be difficult to gain distance from a character when she is still right there, hoping you’ll “like” her handmade inspirational posters. These people, our characters, are persistently with us—and not just in our memories.
And, of course, they all have their versions of stories. That’s always been true, but now the bar for commenting has been lowered significantly. That story you’re telling about your halcyon days can become distorted or commandeered—tainted, even—as it passes through what we might call “the Facebook fact-check.”
As it happens, I have some experience with this. I have an unpublished cultural memoir set in the Dominican Republic and Texas, concerning events that happened in the 1970s and ’80s. In it, I piece together, much in the way my memory works, vignettes that touch on both the traumatic and the mundane. In great detail, I describe my aunt’s palpable grief—she went from catatonic to howling in pain—on the afternoon we learned that my father had died piloting an air force plane. I mention how an uncharacteristically blonde, blue-eyed Dominican classmate derided some earrings my mother had brought back from a trip to Venezuela. If I had published this book in the early days of the web, and especially before Facebook, and if, through a freak act of nature, a copy made it back to the Dominican Republic, someone might have quibbled about the narrative, recognized him- or herself in the story and related to or separated themselves from it. Maybe I would have received an e-mail or two with pointed questions: “Hey, did I really hurt your feelings when I said your earrings should be worn only by classless maids?” Or “Why would you write about your aunt crying like that?” By contrast, that same interaction on Facebook or any other social media platform would be instantaneous and, for me, a huge distraction from my work. The mirror social media holds up to my work, so far, has intimidated me enough to keep me from publishing. Not because I have startling revelations that cast people in my life negatively, but because in my writer’s mind, my past has its own past. I can’t get lost in the reverie of recalling that past when so much of it is so present every time I update my Facebook status.
And yet, perhaps there’s hope. I take heart in knowing that although social media supplies us with instant memory on steroids, the content itself can be ephemeral. The moment a corporate institution goes down, so does the content and so do your memories. Our data could be one hack or natural disaster or bankruptcy away from exposure or deletion. In many ways, the steady storytelling we’re imprinting on the web is no different than jotting an idea on the back of a napkin and misplacing it.
And perhaps that’s for the best. We shouldn’t rely too heavily on external digital memory. The noisy interactions on social media distract at every level, and the illusion of perfect recall is a siren’s call. It’s hard to resist since it’s omnipresent in daily life, and so usable, but even the most assiduous curation of interactions on social media has a cost. If our postings on social media and the web keep giving us perfect recall, then the story is authored for us; we become transcribers rather than storytellers. As writers, we delight in that moment when memory becomes story. We need to forget in order to engage in the essence of remembering.
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