Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Digitized Memories

Forget What Did

Stopping the diary
Was a stun to memory,
Was a blank starting,

One no longer cicatrized
By such words, such actions
As bleakened waking.

I wanted them over,
Hurried to burial
And looked back on

Like the wars and winters
Missing behind the windows
Of an opaque childhood.

And the empty pages?
Should they ever be filled
Let it be with observed

Celestial recurrences,
The day the flowers come,
And when the birds go.

Philip Larkin, 6 August 1971

There is a marvelous scene in the Richard L. Brooks film How Do You Know?, in which Annie, who has just had a baby, is receiving visitors in her hospital room. Al, Annie's boyfriend, has brought a camcorder and he hands it to a friend of Annie's named George, played by Paul Rudd, and tells him to record what follows. Al then proposes marriage to Annie in a beautiful, rambling speech, and she tearfully accepts. Then George looks down at the camcorder and notices that it isn't turned on. It didn't record Al's proposal. "Oh my God!" he says. "I didn't get it!" They yell at him, "You didn't get it?" Rudd says it's ok, they can re-do it. So they all have to reconstruct, this time for the recording camera, the speech he made, with everyone helping him with what they remember of it, and the scene ends happily.

How strangely we nervously strive nowadays to record every crucial moment of our lives, and to collect them and keep them for years. Once it was just photographs. Now it's digital video. The anger of the people at George's blunder is funny, because they sound as if, by failing to push the "record" button, the experience was somehow spoiled, and lost. But of course it wasn't. It happened, and the people who were there are perfectly capable of remembering what they said and did and witnessed. So, why do they still need the video?

When my nephew was two years old, my brother (also named George) took him to Disney World. When I told him that his son was too young, and wouldn't remember any of it, my brother simply replied, "It's OK. He'll have the video."

Over the years since the appearance of camcorders (my first was a huge, shoulder-mounted RCA model), I have accumulated a lot of video of my own. I even had to transfer the obsolete video to DVD (which is itself becoming obsolete). Some of it is irreplaceable, like the shots I took from the signal deck of the USS Belleau Wood entering Hong Kong harbor in 1992. Or a tour of the trailer I lived in on a "guest ranch" in Fallon, Nevada. Or a visit to Shuri Castle in Okinawa. Or window-gazing at snow from my 2nd-floor apartment in Des Moines. I also have two weddings, at which I was the groom, from 1991 and 1995. All of them were great moments, italicized forever - or so I once believed.

A sci-fi movie was released in the 1990s, and remade a few years ago, called Total Recall,(1) that is based on what I consider is a central fallacy. The movie's "gimmick" is why go to all the trouble and expense of a vacation when you can, for a nominal fee, have detailed memories of a relaxing vacation implanted in your brain? This gimmick is based on two faulty assumptions: the first is that, if you have the memories implanted, won't you also remember having them implanted? The second and much bigger assumption is that a memory of an experience is just as valuable as the experience itself.

A few months ago I surprised my girlfriend, who has been an inestimable addition to my life here on my Philippine island, when I took a few of my DVDs, ones on which those two weddings and sundry memories of those marriages were immortalized, and destroyed them. They were nothing to me any more but a few bridges I burned, back roads down which I no longer wished to travel. Of course, I will always remember what was on those DVDs. I was there, after all, taking it all in as greedily as I ever did. The absurdity of keeping them around, moments in my life that I chose to italicize but that have long since lost their value for me, was counterbalanced by the sheer silliness of the practice. They were irreplaceable days in my life, regardless of what's happened since. The marriages ended. So, why keep a record of the weddings any longer?

More than 500 years ago, Montaigne wrote "What I commit to paper, I immediately dismiss from my memory." Aren't we doing the same with digital video? Montaigne was trying to impress on his readers how important memory is, and that the best way to utilize knowledge is through memorization. To what extent are we relinquishing our memories in favor of digital video? 

(1) The remake isn't worth recalling.

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