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Fleeting Memories of Youth and the Increasing Impermanence of Culture

How will we remember our personal past in the future?

Autumn 2021

I've forgotten my first summer
I've forgotten my first winter with snow
But a picture of father remains
- bob hund (as translated by me)

When dementia after a long, slow onset had my grandmother firmly in its clutches, she just wanted to go home. I fully understood her: the care home hardly felt like a home at all, even though most of her furniture was there and we, her younger relatives, came to visit as often as we could. But home wasn't her previous apartment, or the one before that. It wasn't even the little house, an allotment cottage repurposed for year-round living, where she and my grandfather had lived for decades. Home was the old smallholding she'd grown up on together with her parents and eight siblings. Home was an impossibility.

The fear and agony in her face and the bottomless sadness in her eyes when she, once again, realized that she could never again go home felt like someone stabbing a knife into my heart, twisting it. I can only imagine what it felt like to her.

One thing that helped ease her pain and confusion was looking at old photos. And not just, I think, because they depicted familiar people and places, but because the photos themselves were familiar. Kept in old cigar boxes and albums, many of them had been studied for the better part of a lifetime. They'd been ritually brought forth and flipped through both at family gatherings and in solitude. Faded and worn, they were well known objects and the act of looking at them itself as symbolic as the events they depicted.

***

When we were both 20 years old, one of my closest friends died. I swore never to forget him. We were young then, he and I and our friends. Some of them seemed to think my promise was a preposterous idea sprung from grief. Why would I, we, forget? I wonder if they're still as sure about that, now that we're older and less immortal. Memories fade with age and time and perhaps I too will once suffer from dementia.

We were children of the Eternal September, trailblazing pioneers of unchartered online territory on IRC, personal home pages and secretive web communities. "The Internet never forgets" the saying goes, but that's a misconception. My friend's so called online presence is long gone: the social media we frequented back then has been replaced many times over and a commemorative homepage and domain, registered and maintained by friends, has also disappeared.

The most lasting mementos are physical artefacts: a small clay figurine, a handful of photos. A physical book of IRC quotes we had professionally printed and bound many years ago is, ironically, likely to outlive whatever bit-rotting homepage we once built to make permanent the same quotes online.

I could scan everything and upload the pictures to some cloud server somewhere, pretending that it's still going to be there in forty years, but I won't. Instead, I take the photos out sometimes and perform my own little ritual of remembrance: thumbing through them, smiling and thinking of what was no doubt simpler times, even though teenage turmoil certainly didn't make it feel that way back then.

***

Around the turn of the millennium, the two biggest online communities in Sweden were Skunk (which means the same in Swedish and English) and Lunarstorm. Both were Swedish language websites, popular mostly in the 15-25 demographic. They were MySpace before MySpace and Facebook before Facebook, but they worked roughly the same. People made profile pages, connected with friends, wrote in each others' public guestbooks and sent private messages. There were discussion groups, photo albums and status updates.

And then, one day, they were gone. Offline. The countless teenage intrigues they had served as stage for were just deleted. Good riddance, perhaps - but what about all the other things? All the poems, short stories, formative correspondence, all the photos uploaded?

Some of it - most of the photos, surely - had a good chance of survival back then, because they were just as likely to also have been printed on glossy photo paper or burned on CD:s, now resting somewhere at the bottom of a drawer or in an attic. The mass market digital cameras used to produce uploadable photos were, I think, the last link in the long chain of time when memories were so deliberately tied to physical objects.

Once, a bible was perhaps the only book in a household and became a family heirloom, reminiscent of older relatives reading from it. Maybe smaller objects fell out when opening it: hand written correspondence, newspaper clippings, a wedding photo.

Things like these were passed on through generations, stored and handled with care. Technology kept progressing, becoming cheaper, changing the way we stored and experienced our mnemonic aids but still keeping them tangible, their meaning reinforced by the procedures enabling their consumption. I have fond childhood memories of the ritualized rigging up of a slide projector, followed by the family gathering to look at vacation photos. I'm sure there are still recordings of mine and countless others' childhood antics on audio and camcorder cassettes stored away in basements. During the early 2000s friends still sent me musical mix tapes by snail mail, the liner notes consisting of personalized messages and drawings.

Even the first home computers had something physically tangible to attach to the memories we created with and on them. Massive libraries of colorful tapes and floppies and, later, endless stacks of CD:s burned at home. There was some sense of permanence about it and I still have disks from my very first Amiga. They're thirty years old now but they still work.

In fact, up to and including the digital consumer cameras, communication and creation had always been a struggle with brevity and bandwidth. It was costly to send mail and time consuming to write by hand, so letters were usually kept fairly short: a few pages, perhaps. And they took up space: proficient correspondents, unless wealthy, eventually ran out of reasonable storage for their letters and had to discard some of them. Audio and camcorder cassettes had limited running times. Rolls of film had a fixed number of frames and once you'd snapped your 24 pictures, that was it. Even if you were a hobby photographer with an endless budget and your own darkroom, there was a physical and temporal limit to the number of pictures you could develop and keep. There was a similar process with the digital cameras: CF cards filled up and you had to transfer the files to your computer, in the process deleting the bad ones in order to save space on your external hard drive.

Then the smartphone happened, and the cloud, and something fundamentally changed.

***

We humans are hoarders: we anticipate future needs and prepare ourselves for them (even if it's by way of intricate abstractions). Once those needs are met, our large mammalian brains demand distractions, and we have a lot of those. In combination with cheap and plentiful network bandwidth and cheap, seemingly infinite cloud storage, interesting behaviors emerge.

We can - and do - store hundreds of gigabytes of photos online. We are documenting our lives in unprecedented detail, some of us willingly sharing it with the world, others keeping it (ostensibly) private. I can fully understand this amassing of mementos, this storage frenzy of an ever-growing mass of externalized memories. And yet, when the cost of keeping them is so low, do they really keep their value as links to our personal past? When will we have time to sit down, alone or with our loved ones, and look through it all?

Thousands upon thousands of pictures to swipe through, none of them scrutinized for significance, none of them carefully selected for depicting important life events. Instead we're met by an overwhelming blur of everyday nonsense of our own creation: so many plates of food, so many daily outfits, so many sunsets and trees and beers and shoes and faces and cars and cities. In fact, do we perhaps approach our growing mountains of photographic documentation with a tiny, nagging sense of angst? Angst about what irrelevant or embarrassing minutiae we'll find in lieu of what we're actually looking for, or angst about that we should, but don't have the time, to perform some culling? At least I miss the joyous anticipation a stack of newly developed photos used to invoke.

And how do we turn this into a meaningful ritual? It's the same swiping and searching we do for everything else these days, no different from the mind-numbing doomscrolling we torment ourselves with on social media. What associations does that bring about, when we reminisce about life and love the same way we dull our senses with mindless, temporary distractions?

***

If you're young today, your formative years depend on auto-deleted snapchat videos, short-lived memes, stories told in computer games likely unplayable in 30 years (without emulation of complex proprietary CPUs and GPUs), and whatever happens to flutter by in a feed. I'm curious what the future of reminiscing will look like, even if all of this is saved somehow. So much to sift through, so few tangible artifacts. Even more traditional culture is less permanent: we get our music and movies from streaming services, we rent our e-books through EULA:s and consume them on devices controlled by the manufacturer. I do most of this myself - but I was young in a different era and I at least have my stacks of CD:s (including bob hund) tucked away in a safe place and shelves full of the prose and movies that shaped me.

Even brevity is artificial now. Instead of a hastily scribbled love note on a postcard, we have Twitter - run by the same execs who shut down Vine, effectively erasing a huge chunk of the collective memories of a generation: skits, music, societal commentary. Offline. Just like with Geocities. And Friendster. And, of course, all those sites that still exist but where old content has been deleted or accounts lost and can't be reclaimed due to defunct webmail services, changes of ownership and crass business decisions.

And yet, despite these and countless other examples, we still put our faith in digital permanence. We create so many mementos we hardly have time to look at them and then we entrust them all to companies and platforms beyond our control, storing them on machines we don't own using services that could disappear tomorrow. Will Youtube still be there in 50 years? Will Instagram and Dropbox?

I mostly have questions, not answers. But I do know that a carefully handled bunch of photographs can last for over a century.

I find some comfort in that.