Do Modern Memoirists Dream of Electric Memories?

Back in December ’08 I visited an exhibition staged by the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. This is when all the ITP students showcase their work. My NYS (New York Sister), Amanda Bernsohn, is a student in the program. Just for background, the ITP website describes the course as “a living community of technologists, theorists, engineers, designers, and artists uniquely dedicated to pushing the boundaries of interactivity in the real and digital worlds.”

To which I can only say: Yay! Looking at all the exhibits was like walking around inside a bunch of intelligent, creative minds. Now, I’m not an overly technical person, so much of the programming part of what these people were doing was totally beyond me, but what I found so fascinating was that they were all making interesting connections. Taking a concept from one area of thought and applying it somewhere else. Twisting ideas around to get new, more interesting ideas. And, along the way, quite possibly coming up with products that will be part of our daily lives in the near future.

Take Amanda’s project for example: Urban Windchimes. It’s so awesome. Check out the website for more info, but the basic concept is that, in our urban environments, people don’t always want to listen to other people’s windchimes. With this invention, you can place a wind sensor on your window ledge or fire escape and pay the chimes through your computer. There’s the possibility of placing sensors all over the world — ever wanted to listen to the wind on Mount Fiji? Or in the Bahamas? How cool would that be?

Then there were a few projects that were dealing, in one way or another, with memory. And this got me thinking about the connection between memory and technology, and how the digital revolution means we might well remember things differently in the future. This, in turn, has some pretty interesting consequences for future memoirists.

Already, online social media networks like Facebook provide a digital archive of our lives that just didn’t exist a few years ago. Want to know what you were doing the summer of your junior year? Check your status updates! Can’t remember when you started that college internship that proved to be so formative? Check out your LinkedIn page! Personally, I have long been haunted by my future memoiristic self: I can’t throw away my old Filofax calenders from 1995 or my journals from when I was twelve, just in case I’m working on some future project and I need an aide memoire, or to fact check my own life. But soon I won’t need paper records at all — it will all be online.

Here’s a project from the ITP show that takes it to the next level: a social network site combined with google maps to created an online memory repository. It’s called remmbr.

And here’s another project from the show that plays with how memory is linked to technology — and the idea that both can degrade: portrait of a memory in vhs.

Now all we need is a chip inserted into our brains that will record every memory we ever had, right? Scary thought, but perhaps not too far off. The question is, though: would this actually hinder memoirists? After all, creating memoir isn’t just about what you remember. It’s not just the facts — it’s what they mean. It’s being able to plumb memory for meaning. And we are able to do that, partially, because certain memories loom large and take up more room than others. What we recall, and the level of intensity with which we recall, is a guide to what’s important to us. It helps us piece together significance. If everything is retained without differentiation, wouldn’t we be autobiographers rather than memoirists? Perhaps one of the most important aspects of writing memoir is what we don’t know and so must create.

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