Digital remembrance of things past

by Sarah Firisen

ConnieMy grandmother had 7 sisters (and a couple of brothers who died young and none of us remember), my great-grandmother had 10 siblings. This past week, I attended reunions with 22 of the descendents of these ancestors, on two continents (New York and London). At these joyful family gatherings we told stories, reminisced about family craziness and shared old photos that we had all brought to lunch. Most of my second cousins have managed to find their grandmothers’ wedding photos and have posted them on our Facebook group and we’ve all been trying to identify which young bridesmaids were which sister. We’ve dug out photos of bar mitzvahs and weddings. We’ve worked collectively to put names to faces. It’s been great. But it occurs to me that my great grandchildren won’t get to do much of this. They’ll get to do other things, things that I can’t even imagine technology will enable, but not this. I have photo albums from when I was a kid and a wedding album. And my kids have some photos from when they were young, before smartphones and Facebook became so ubiquitous. But except for photos that I intend to frame and display, I haven’t had a photo printed for at least 10 years. And my children don’t even know how to get a photo printed (that’s not strictly true, my 17 year old took a photography class and knows how to use a darkroom, but I’m sure has no idea how to use Shutterfly because the idea of printing out a photo rather than posting it on Instagram is alien to her).

In response to my last piece on 3QD, a colleague, Josh, wrote the following thoughts to me: “Roots. Are at our very core. We can live without them for short periods, but to have soul, you have to listen to a record, not just hear an iphone stream, you have to turn the page of a book, not just flip an ipad, you have to hold the tattered edges of an old family picture and see the soul in their eyes to grab the essence of time capture. “

Increasingly, we don’t have photos to become tattered, new books to become dogeared, let alone records. Is my colleague Josh right, are we losing our roots and our souls? Something that is easy to forget is that many people would have said this when the phonograph was first introduced, or the first cameras. There have always been luddites, sometimes with legitimate concerns about technology, sometimes with just fears of the new. There have always been people worried that new technology will change fundamental things about who we are as people and how we interact with each other, and believe that those changes will only be negative. I don’t think the question is, “will we grow different roots with digital photos”, but rather, why is it that these “roots” are necessarily inferior? The albums that I scoured for photos yesterday were buried in a box in the back of a closet. I haven’t looked at any of them in years. My children don’t even realize I have most of these photos. But in our digital, social media lives, we’re sharing our photos all the time. One of my more favorite Facebook features is when it shows you photos of this day on x year and it shows me some adorable photo of my kids when they were little or reminds me of a great trip I was on. Often, I repost these photos and tag my kids. I know that some people will say that most of us overshare, and perhaps we do, but, just as with my cousins’ sharing of photos of our grandmothers on Facebook, this kind of sharing can do its part to fortify relationship bonds. Years ago, I would have brought those photos to lunch, everyone would have passed them around and that would have been it. Now, I’ve digitized them, posted them on our Facebook group and we have online discussions about them including in cousins who weren’t able to attend the reunions, we give these photos a life beyond a dusty photo album in the back of a closet.

When I was going through the box in the closet, I came across letters I had received over the years from friends and family, so many letters. There were people I had one-off communications with and people I had clearly kept in touch with for a long time. I haven’t written a letter to anyone in 30 years, my children almost certainly never will. It does feel like something is lost here; my digital communications are private (hopefully) in a way that a letter can’t be and short-lived life for the most part. Most emails are a few lines at best. I’m certainly not archiving my emails back and forth with people for posterity. But the letters I’ve kept do tell a story about me that perhaps my children will enjoy reading one day. Perhaps we can see Facebook as being the replacement for the way we communicate with friends and family, the digital record of the details of our lives. But if Facebook were to disappear tomorrow, so would all my memories. And when I die, will my family really pore over my Facebook posts about a great meal I ate in 2012?

There’s no doubt that technology, from mobile phones, social media to email, and beyond, have kept me far more in touch with my teenagers and friends and family than I would be otherwise. Many of the people I used to write letters to I eventually lost touch with. Some I’m back in touch with thanks to Facebook. Social media is mostly a push rather a pull; we don’t need to make a huge effort to reach out to people in order to know what they’re up and how big their children have grown and in our busy lives, this can be a positive. The large number of cousins who attended the family reunions this week, particularly the cousins that I had never met, are people who attended because of relationships we grew and sometimes initiated through social media. In addition to the family reunions, I met up with 2 different groups of women I’d gone to school with 30 years ago. In almost all the cases, the reasons that we’re back in touch are because of social media.

Overall, I think I disagree with Josh, though I understand and appreciate the sentiment, I don’t think that we’ve lost our soul, or at least not because of the move to digital photography. Something has been lost, and something has been gained. In the 19th century, new technology meant that families didn’t have to gather around in the evening and amuse themselves telling stories and singing songs. Technology brought radios into people lives, movies, television. Something was lost with this, but culturally, a lot was gained. A story told around a fire was ephemeral, Gone with the Wind can be enjoyed for generations to come.