M-Theory: When the medium is the memory

Written by: Melanie Baker | 24 June 2021 | M-Theory, Opinion

Societies have these indelible moments. Major events that imprint themselves on your memory when they happen. Even decades later you can recall sensory details with remarkable clarity. 

The specific markers depend somewhat on your generation and particular society. For example, the assassination of JFK, the moon landing, the Challenger explosion, the death of Princess Diana, 9/11. I can still picture newspaper front pages for a couple of those.

I recently had a moment where I was reminded about moments from our personal lives that get recorded this way as well. Not the expected life milestones, but sometimes random moments, possibly in which your participation is peripheral, but that nonetheless just… stay. Why? Few people experienced or knew about them. There was no media coverage.

A friend posted a picture of her dad on Father’s Day, and at that moment I recalled, in photographic detail, when I learned of his death. It was a couple of decades ago now. I’ve had friends lose parents since then, and plenty of other deaths. But I remember that one.

Also, unusually, part of that indelible memory is an email, because I learned about his death via an email-based group we were part of. (It would be a text group chat now, presumably.) It was the second death I learned of that way, via that group. I still remember reading that other email, too. I’m still part of that group.

I guess the internet, or at least some of its services, started to become part of indelible events 20 or so years ago, for me, anyway. At this point I’ve learned of plenty of major events (public and private, deaths included) via online means. But it occurs to me that I don’t think any email or text message will ever produce the level of gut-twisting dread that a phone call really late at night always will.

I also got thinking about major public events, especially post-9/11, and it occurred to me that while I remember a lot of them, few have that stamp on my memory. I even looked up a “timeline of the 21st century” list. 

I do have a lot of memory snippets of breaking news tweets and watching videos online. But little of substance has stuck. (Though for whatever reason I do recall tsunami videos from 2004 in Indonesia and 2011 in Japan in some detail.)

The most indelible memory of a public event that I have from the last decade or two is from the European migrant crisis in 2015, because it wasn’t just online. I came face to face with it (in a glancing way), on a train from Vienna to Munich, with dozens of Syrian refugee families who had scrambled to ensure they were on it when it departed Budapest.

The other indelible moments from then that I recall are all media-based. BBC coverage viewed in hotel rooms, mostly. Horrible pictures from beaches splashed everywhere online.

I can recall how it felt when Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 U.S. election. (I also remember how it felt going to bed on the night of the 2016 election and waking up in the Trump era the next morning.) I recall a lot about watching coverage of the Capitol attack, too. Those were only a few months ago, so who knows how much of it will remain with me 20 years from now?

I got my second COVID vaccination. The pharmacist’s name was Gabriela. I’m pretty sure that experience will remain in the memory vault. Again, perhaps because it was an in-person experience. Or perhaps because it is a kind of punctuation mark on the pandemic.

But so many events, especially the public ones, while I remember them, aren’t indelibly imprinted. Is it because there’ve just been so many? Is it because they came with too much memory fodder, with the photos and videos and articles and tweets and op-eds?

Is it because all that media makes the events too visceral, and our minds haven’t evolved enough to properly process them? Or perhaps the mind knows what it’s doing just fine and doesn’t want to subject us to it with that level of fidelity. Movies like to show brainwashing or madness induced by torture-by-media, after all.

Media itself isn’t an event anymore, either. Who needs a 6 p.m. broadcast when we have the 24-hour news cycle, endless internet coverage, and social platform commentary? My memory couldn’t imprint the front page of a newspaper today because I don’t recall the last time I actually saw one. 

Media has enabled collective experiences, though, which have made some events more indelible. Like I remember some events because of the shared experience of watching and discussing (or snarking about) them. The Olympics opening ceremonies, watched “together” online with real-time commentary. Or the Oscars, similarly. So much fun. (We’re much funnier than any network host.)

Something else that also recently occurred to me is that some of my more recent indelible moments now also have media backups, which is rare. Exposure to these media triggers the mind and body. (Fortunately in a good way.)

I had an incident recently that put access to 15 years’ of my photos and videos, and their backups, in jeopardy. All is well now, but over the month it took to sort out the issue, specific moments saved in those files kept coming back to me. Even though they’re indelible memories, the thought of losing the recordings made me feel sick.

I have a 21-second video taken during a rainstorm at dusk in Costa Rica, and while I’m pretty sure just thinking about that moment lowers my blood pressure, actually watching and listening to it sends me right back there. I am very happy to have a backup to my brain for that.

Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have had that video. I didn’t have a phone in my pocket most of the time that gave me the superpower of creating something so affecting and cherished. But then, since it wasn’t an option, I wouldn’t have missed not having it, either. Whatever my brain decided to store was it... along with photos from an actual camera, if I got them printed.

Of course, with all this recording possibility, with all this media, not all of it is going to be beautiful vistas or wonderful moments. Some of it is going to be the worst days of some people’s lives. Some of it is going to be evidence. Very, very public, and a whole different kind of indelible.

I do have some indelible memories that really suck. And they can be intrusive from time to time. But they’re mine, and only exist in my head. I can’t subject anyone else to them in any kind of visceral way or make them indelible for anyone else.

But when the experiences you can’t forget become news, become media, I can’t begin to imagine how it feels to accidentally stumble across something like that, or have it sent to you. Or just have it show up everywhere. To live in a permanent state of having to be braced for impact. 

Media doesn’t make judgments or choices or changes for our benefit, like brains do. And too often, the people driving the media won’t make those choices for people’s benefit. 

We continue to innovate to make media technology ever more sophisticated, except in the one way that might serve us best. Don’t necessarily make it indelible. Make it able to fade.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at me@melle.ca.

Melanie Baker

Melanie Baker has a Mennonite background, a career in tech, and enjoys the unlikely ways these things complement each other. She enjoys writing, working with geeks, building communities, baking and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.