I write/draw, therefore I am.
It takes a certain human madness to record events the way we do.
Whether events of the physical world or events of the internal mind (one has active effects on the other of course), we madly, compulsively seek ways to pin these all down in some form or another. Transcripts, minutes, words, video, every angle dreamt up by the spatial and dimension-aware mind, and it will be attempted. The nature of these documentations are as disparate as their outcomes: sometimes transient like graffiti and popular music; sometimes permanent like architecture and novels, sometimes humble and private, other times attention-seeking and explosive. Egoism of varying gradients also colour these intentions.
I suspect that part of this is born from a distrust of the human memory. Memory not only fails us at times where we most have need for lessons from the past, but it is also fickle, biased, transformative and tirelessly reflexive. You’d think that having a digital memory, a repository of permanent data, would make us happier beings. But no – ’tis not so.
As Malcolm Turnbull touchingly reflects:
For all of human history until today, the natural order of things has been to forget. We have had to make an effort to remember – whether it is painting on the walls of a cave, writing a diary, transcribing the proceedings of a parliament.
And when we remember things we often transform them. We push unhappy memories aside and remember the happy ones.
Lucy and I lived together in Oxford for nearly a year. I have no doubt the weather was as regularly grey and gloomy in 1980 as it usually is. But my memory of Oxford with Lucy is only full of sunshine. And not just the blissful sunshine of young love. Almost all of the photographs we took and dutifully pasted in our album were taken on one, the only one, blue skied, sunshining day. When I think of our time in Oxford the images that come to mind are that handful of snapshots.
So now as it is so cheap and effortless to remember and we live more and more of our lives online, how can we forget? For millions of years the frailty of human memory has deleted recollections, but the digital brain that is the Internet never forgets.
You had forgotten being drunk and stupid at a party at university – so had everyone else by the way. But someone took some pictures, put them on Facebook, tagged you and now years later they are turned up in a search by your would-be employer.
Millions of people today converse with their friends online, on Facebook or similar sites, by email, by text message. They are creating a transcript of their lives. So how can they forget the cruel slights of the year before last – the human brain defaults to delete, the digital brain defaults to remember, forever.
How can we forgive, if we cannot forget?
We document so as to carve out a source of existential comfort that lasts longer than our short-lived selves, and to share and expand the space that we occupy in the world. Andy Warhol was drawn to the TV medium because the wider the reach of your persona, the bigger the space you (metaphysically) inhabit becomes.
Before media there used to be a physical limit on how much space one person could take up by themselves. People, I think, are the only things that know how to take up more space than the space they’re actually in, because with media you can sit back and still let yourself fill up space on records, in the movies, most exclusively on the telephone and least exclusively on television.
Is this documentation rational?
Meaning, does our recording of any and all events have any lasting use other than the immediate effect of existential and social gratification? As documentation-receivers simultaneously also, do we have the attention space to take in all of these multiplex, kaleidoscopic accounts of the here and now? What happens to the intensity and duration of attention given? What happens to the collective record of human history? Who gets to choose which voices get to be included, and is it possible to include all voices in this documentation? Does the maxim ‘history is written by the victors’ still hold? Who writes history?
This is the ultimate, humorous paradox of choice.
Other questions push their way forwards. Where will be future generations look to for comprehensive records of history? Newspapers, former journals of record do not tell the full tale of humanity, nor have they ever. But while the ability to record and document of ordinary citizens has always been, unlimited access to universal readership did not. We live in a time where everyone from a housewife in Japan to a teenager in rural Victoria to an unhappy businessman in the big city now has that.
So many questions will only come to be answered as the coming changes actually arrive. This will be organic; these changes will almost all be incidental and even accidental. For now though, I would suggest more concerted attempts to curate time-series summaries, reports, reviews, of the mediums on which we record and document on a daily basis. Mosaics combining photojournalism, tweets, moving coverage, static words on a page for a momentous, historical watershed event – such as for election day, natural disasters, bombings – or even a single day – are an ideal example.
If intentionally we undertake these for each humanity-changing event, it will not only make it easier for future generations to gain a holistic glimpse of any single event, but also gives us a chance, here and now, to be more inclusive of the sheer overwhelming diversity in human experiences than ever before.