A recent tweet by a well-known academic, lamenting the complete loss of conversation history on a messaging app when her phone died, led to a reflection on the ephemeral nature of digital memories, which are often perceived as far more resilient than anything in paper or print.
Many if not most readers of this column in the Sunday Island will be from a generation that still has photo albums as material artefacts, with photos taken by those for whom a camera was entirely utilitarian, with no purpose other than to be whisked out and used to capture moments that year later are cringeworthy. And so, we have these albums, often moth eaten, with oil paper separating the pages and photos that unless they were originally black and white, are fast fading or entirely monochromatic after decades of fighting heat and humidity. My own, inherited many years ago, contains photos of a very chubby baby (a fact my grandmother I recall used to be rather pleased about and took credit for), often drooling away, sometimes frowning (wondering perhaps why I had to suffer the indignity of a pose when there was warm milk to be had) and often doing things no one in the photo, the photographer, or in the vicinity at the time can remotely recall the reasons for.
Many readers of this column on my blog or over social media, I suspect, will not themselves possess a photo album as a physical, material artefact. Their photo albums, like my own today, will be many and varied, but all digital – stored online in various platforms, shared with family and friends through links, digitally produced, stored, altered, shared and commented on. After the introduction of Google Photos in 2015, I decided to migrate my entire collection of photos – around 25,000, taken over a decade including scanned versions of older photos taken on film – online, and delete everything locally. It was a decision I both regret and am also happy about. The ambivalence is shared with many others. Facebook and Google Photos access the details digital photos have associated with them to suggest, often quite eerily, related places and people in the photos, various ways to group or curate them, and perhaps most usefully, of photos taken on a certain day in the past. Memories of travels with my son, random things I have done with him, trips with friends, some who are no longer living, places I’ve been to in the past which hold some nostalgic association, and relationships I have been in, are all algorithmically selected and almost magically presented. It’s a sort of continuous memorialisation, an automated photographic stream of consciousness, powered by increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence that recognises specific elements in the photos and makes intelligent connections between them.
All this wizardry, which admittedly I am quite partial to and interested in the development of, comes with greater, hidden sacrifices. For starters, Google, not I, now has my photos. In the simple transfer of them from my laptop and personal storage to Google’s servers and storage, the photos, though still private, aren’t really owned by me. I am better at searching for and discovering, on-demand, old photos than remembering them. Online, my photos do not fade. With each significant new advance in Google Photos, I am given options to alter my photos in ways unimaginable, extremely expensive or very hard to process just a few years ago. I can group, share, search with ease. But I’ve discovered that this ease comes at a price. In a world where unlimited storage and the immediate sharing of photographs is a given, the appeal of those decayed, faded photo albums is, for me, more tangible. To not remember why a photo was taken or by whom, to relive a moment from the past captured only by a faded photo, to retell the story around why there is a blotch or tear in a photo (often more interesting than what was originally framed), to smell and feel an old photo album – these are not things the digital can ever recreate. Or wants to either, because the digital sells very different things – convenience and speed over the frustrating yet often instructive process of finding a material album and photos therein, algorithmic discoverability and precise indexing over fuzzy, maddeningly illogical yet perfectly relatable organisational logic of a family or parent, lossless storage over the decay of photos especially in the tropics, unlimited storage over the limits of album, film, camera and money to process, and ultimately, the off-loading of memory, because why remember something when from the palm of your hand, you can search for it and bring it up in seconds.
Over time, I began to get annoyed with myself for not remembering, the more I captured. I now take less photos, delete more and upload less. The most precious thing I brought with me for the years I will spend away from my son was a photo of his, gifted by his mother, which frames him at an age where he is no longer a child, and not yet a teenager. I have many more photos of us on Google Photos, and am frequently reminded of those I uploaded to Facebook nine or ten years ago. These often result in a range of emotions, but after they pass, there is also the disquiet that it takes technology today to remind me of things I should remember anyway, discover in a different way, or even sometimes are best forgotten.
I belong to the last generation that grew up in a Sri Lanka without the Internet, web or the ubiquity of smartphones. I straddle a time when there was no such thing as a mobile phone, and the fact that I am wedded and almost umbilically connected to my own. My son, already on Instagram, following the accounts of my closest friends and my own, sees photos never captured with him in mind. Do I delete now? Do I keep? How should I explain and frame? Will he ask? How should I introduce? I’ve decided to keep everything and talk with him, through my filtered frames, the life I’ve led. At a very different time, I recognise that these were also conversations I had, around his age, when my parents first showed me their wedding album. Relatives they hated to speak with, much less be around, siblings they had fallen out with, and the ineluctable intricacies of family politics were revisited based on photos taken decades ago, over our kitchen table. I didn’t understand then everything they said, but the photos, as an amorphous collection of materials and memories both precious and beautiful, remains indelibly etched in mind.
I wonder if the natively digital will give that same pleasure, years hence? The fear of losing data and information grips us, and rightfully so. But with the persistence of storage online, we have perhaps lost our appreciation for, or patience with, the fallibility of memory. I have, increasingly of late, come to realise that alongside the convenience of digital capture I am a willing hostage to, there is much to be said of taking in a moment without always reaching out to phone or frame. Our most personal memories, of the most tender moments, were perhaps never meant to live digitally, in perpetuity.
Like us, they should fade away, be reshaped, retold, and die.
First published in The Sunday Island, 20 May 2018.