At 35, I am one of the youngest people to have experienced adult life without the Internet, without a mobile phone in my pocket – some of my younger friends have never even known life without the likes of social media.
Don’t get me wrong, the Internet is a wonderful thing and my phone never leaves my side, but sometimes I stop and am taken aback by how fast things move now, how so many things I once held precious have become intangible, impersonal and disposable. Books, love letters, records and tapes, even holiday brochures no longer exist in real life, reduced instead to bits, bytes and pixels.
I got my first mobile phone, a cute little thing known as an Ericsson T10, at the age of 21. I gradually got into text messaging as a form of communication. I remember getting a really lovely text message from a guy and being the sad romantic that I was back then I said to my best friend, “I don’t want to delete this, but I have to because my phone will run out of space for messages. I wish I could print out text messages on a little ticker-tape printer.”
I have memories of a time when I literally had to remember the time. The time of the train, the time I said that I would meet my friend, the time that the shops closed. Now I don’t have to remember anything much. I’ll just check the train time on an app on the way to the station and see if I’ve got time for a coffee. I’ll forget what time I arranged to meet my friend, but I know she won’t leave the house until I text to say I’m on the train.
The library of information available to me online far exceeds the content of my bookshelf. The difference is that I remember what’s in those reference books because in my pre-Internet life if I wanted to research a topic, anything from travel to music, I would choose a recommended book and study it, day after day, week after week.
I concentrated and remembered what I had learnt.
I’m guilty of being a hoarder of little pieces of memorabilia – invitations, tickets, flyers, cuttings from magazines, newspapers, whatever. These items are like tangible tiny chunks of memory; I hold them in my hands and I am instantly transported back to a point in time, a place in the world, a concert, I hear a song, I feel the moment once again. The online revolution has made it quicker and easier than ever to plan travel and adventure, but leaves me without any keepsakes to trigger my memories of the experience. Instead of a treasured ticket stub and a flyer tucked away in the bottom of my bag, I find a crumpled A4 print-it-yourself ticket with a bar code and a link to a Facebook page.
Music invokes many a powerful memory in almost all of us, yet it is one of the hardest things to keep with us over the years because the formats upon which it is recorded and stored keep changing. I’ve got boxes of tapes but nothing to play them on. Will the same eventually happen to CDs? I still buy music, but it’s all too easy to lose it these days. It only takes a fatal hard drive crash or an accidental iPod sync to lose whole years of memories. And do I trust the far-off cyber ‘cloud’ that’s supposed to store such? Don’t clouds release what they store periodically? Aren’t they wispy insubstantial things anyway?
All my memories are in cyberspace now, not here in my hands. When my gadgets let me down, I’m left relying on my Facebook and iTunes accounts and clouds to remember my life for me.
And then of course there are images. Photos. Tucked carefully away at home are my photo albums, precious snapshots of friends and family, parties and holidays. In the digital era, we have so many photos but we seem to value them so much less. We just have a quick review the morning after, a click to tag or un-tag, whack them on Facebook or Instagram or Pinterest or Tumblr, and then move on. Will we even know where to find these digital photo albums in a few years time? Who is looking after them for us anyway? Remember your first digital photo albums, from your first digital camera but before Facebook? You uploaded them to that website… go and have a look… oh it’s not there anymore! Your account was cancelled because you forgot about it and didn’t log on for three years. One day the same will happen with the websites we take for granted today.
This digital life…it’s taking something precious from us. It’s stealing our memories – or we are at the very least giving them away for zilch.
I wonder whether in the future our collective memories – memories that once had some tangible, touchable, three-dimensional substance to them but that now are just a collection of binary dots and dashes – will end up locked away from us in a virtual archive, for which no one will give us the key…?