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Does the digital age really capture our memories better than before? Perhaps not.

October 9, 2020

These days, most of us (and I speak of the wealthier nations of the world) have smartphones, and most of us therefore have videos. Of family, friends, riots, crime scenes and bungee jumps. Mostly these are ephemeral things. We share them on WhatsApp groups and the social media, and unless we can make money from them, we don’t give much thought to organising them or storing them for future use. Or for looking back, just as we used to sit around at family gatherings and look at photo albums, or leave them in a cupboard for our descendants to discover when we die.

It takes effort to gather these little clips into one place. If we do so, I suspect it’s the result of an occasional binge of organising, after which we let new videos accumulate on various devices, only to be forgotten when we change phones and haven’t been bothered to subscribe for cloud storage that accommodates the increasing swarm of ephemera.

Well, that’s my story. Perhaps yours is different. But it wasn’t always that way. When I saw three little video clips posted to Twitter by Mandy Patinkin, he of Homeland and a heavenly counter-tenor singing voice, I was reminded of an earlier age.

The clips are of Mandy and his wife Kathryn Grody, who is a highly-regarded playwright. They’re recorded by his son as the two of them sit together in their home. The ostensible reason for the postings is that they’re anti-Trump videos. In one of them, Mandy starts off with a thunderous rant, and then asks Kathryn what she thinks. She suggests calmer language. She has a go herself, ends up with an even more sulphurous tirade than Mandy’s. It made me laugh, which was no doubt the intention.

As a snippet of political propaganda, it’s no more or less effective than other celebrity offerings, most notably Robert de Niro’s fulminations.

But as a little piece of family theatre, it and the subsequent videos were of far greater value. The son asks simple questions of a couple who have been married for forty years. What do you row about? What’s the most annoying thing about him/her? The answers are touching – little bits of parental interaction that no doubt have been repeated off-camera over the decades. This is clearly a marriage of equals. Mandy may be the more famous of the two, but Kathryn gives as good as she gets. They seem to value each other deeply.

I mention these little family vignettes because I tried something similar in a more formal setting in the early 2000s, just before my father died. I’d just bought a very fancy video camera, so I arranged to do a video interview of my parents, with a pre-arranged set of questions.

The interviews took place over four one-hour sessions in their garden in west London, interrupted occasionally by passing aircraft on their way to Heathrow. It didn’t quite go as planned, because my mother contributed little beyond the occasional tut tut as my father talked. I think she was a little embarrassed by the whole exercise, but she did come up with the occasional acerbic remark, since she was rather fond of cutting him down to size.

My father, who was a lawyer, and very fond of the sound of his own voice, was in his element. He held forth on a number of subjects from childhood onwards. On trips to the dentist across London on his own at the age of seven, on appeasement before the second world war and on India, where he served in the Royal Air Force. You get the idea.

Yet apart from one exercise in consolidation years later, we have no archive of family videos or snapshots. Our vast accumulation of printed photos ended around the same time, thanks to the digital cameras and ultimately the smartphone. Yes, we digitised them, but the well ordered set of folders sit alongside a jumble of stuff downloaded from our phones.

You would think that the collection of items that could be described as family history would become easier in the digital age. But in fact it’s become harder, because people don’t write letters any more, and it takes a concerted effort to gather together digital relics in one place. Most of us can’t be bothered, and besides, not everybody thinks this stuff is important when set against the life imperatives of the present.

Which is a shame, because for all the terabytes of stuff we all generate in our daily lives, technology isn’t really designed to help us suck material out of our phones and clouds, as well as those of our loved ones, into a set of folders marked Mum, Dad and other subject matters. Perhaps when facial recognition software has been designed for the purpose, it will be easier to assemble every video featuring Aunt Gertie in one place, but we’re not there yet.

Much as we treasure those little video clips of people we love, especially after they’ve died, I suspect that we’re getting a less informative portrait of them than was available of our parents and grandparents, even though the whizzy technology wasn’t available at the time. The same goes for the written word. Emails and texts are no substitutes for love letters, for example, as Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved letter demonstrates.

Sad, really, to think that for most of us, our memories have the life cycle of a butterfly and fast disappear into a cloud of disorganised digits.

From → Film, History, Media, Social, UK, USA

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