More than ever, we’re now focused on documenting and building the history of our lives, not on living the life unfolding right in front of us. The decisions we face today are part of the same conﬂict humans have had throughout time: How do we successfully capture a potentially signiﬁcant moment?
Think of the prehistoric caveman making images on the wall, the elementary school class creating a time capsule, or the everyman in an army platoon getting tattooed before a major battle. Likewise, each moldy Polaroid, Foursquare check-in, and uploaded YouTube video creates a breadcrumb trail back through our lives. We want these archives, whether digital or physical, to point back to the very real experience we had, or, just as importantly, to give us insight into someone else’s experience. Silicon Valley tech culture expert Paul Philleo calls these mementos “anchors of memory.” If you picture all the experiences in our lifetimes as drops in the ocean, anchors of memory are those man-made landmarks reminding us that something of note is located there. Without them, we risk forgetting our most important moments in a sea of mundane recollections.
The physical anchor of memory takes up physical space and requires physical maintenance: Keeping your diary dry, ﬁnding a safe place to store it, etc. A virtual anchor of memory takes up virtual space and requires time maintenance: Making sure your account is active, managing relationships on the check-in service, for example. The physical anchors of memory represent the stuff we make the space to own, which constitute our possessions; our virtual anchors of memory represent the stuff we make the time to upload, which create our virtual shadow. In both cases, we’ve reserved a spot for a particular symbolic gesture in our life.
To better understand the anchors of memory, let’s look at them as what a programmer would call them: pointers. A pointer is an empty object whose sole purpose is to represent something elsewhere with actual content.
The Polaroid doesn’t contain your 1978 family reunion, but it points to the memory of that event in your mind. A Twitter status is 140 organized symbols that, for you, trigger a particular idea. Or, in more physical terms, a city mile marker is merely metal with scribbles on it, but it shows you where you have to go to get to that particular place. But what happens if the pointer, this empty piece of symbolism, aims at something that is inaccurate, incomplete, or, worse, not of value at all?
Socrates expressed similar concerns about another new documenting technology: writing. In Plato’s classic dialogue Phaedrus, the renowned orator complains about how lifeless words are when they aren’t spoken:
You know, Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words … And when [a written document] is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.
Words were meant to be spoken, Socrates believed, rather than written down. Leaving them limp on a document was akin to a father abandoning his defenseless children.
Socrates also had a problem with not knowing the intended audience for the written word. Unlike a conversation between people, anyone can pick up a written document, so how do you tailor your written discussion to one person or another? Or worse–what if your words fall into unintended hands? That’s what’s so awkward about documenting the facets of your life in separate silos: Each one has a slightly different audience, expecting a slightly different you. It’s also what makes it impossible to document the whole range of life’s stories inside of one social network alone: It’s too difficult to write for one big mixed audience of relatives, friends, flirts, coworkers, and former classmates.
Our physical keepsakes come with a price: Closet space. Our new virtual anchors of memory take up no space at all–they live in the digital commons. But the price we pay is managing them: Sorting them by audience and positioning them for distribution in one of our networks. Now, the keepsakes we create have a conscious audience–like they barely belong to us at all.
[Image: Flickr user Kevin Dooley]