As a teenager I was employed by my neighbour Steve, a socio-agronomist working with NGO’s to study crop and soil data from Bangladesh. The data had been recorded by local administrators in enormous landscape A2 ledgers of ribbon-bound graph paper, the millimeter squares printed imperfectly in green ink.
The careful handwriting had something of the post-colonial about it – italics flowery with serifs – and this, along with the specific mustiness of the paper, all evoked the moustaches, ceiling fans, pith helmets and love of bureaucracy of the British in the heat – and the cultural residue they had left behind in the local officialdom.
Steve had students and a few of us formed a flexible syndicate. We worked in pairs. Our job was to type the handwritten data into Microsoft Excel, on the now-iconic Apple Macintosh with the tiny screen and the 3.5 inch floppy drive, so it could be sent around the academic community and analysed and ultimately contribute to an agrarian strategy for that flood-prone territory. Is the word “hero” overused? I will not weary it here. We took turns, one of us reading and the other inputting, swapping when either person declared fatigue of hand or eye.
On my first day my co-worker hipped me to the slacker’s hack that when you reached the end of one of these long lines of figures, you could rest your finger on the left arrow key and the cursor would travel cell by cell at a leisurely pace through the spreadsheet, back to the leftmost column.
Due to the Polish influence in my background, this struck me as a waste of productive time and I instituted the practice of dragging the scrollbar to the left, which took one second. My co-worker was openly alarmed that the resultant uptick in our productivity might provoke awkward questions about his record. It was a liminal moment in the computer age. All the data we migrated from paper to disk over a few years of team dictation might have amounted to several megabytes of storage, perhaps overspilling a floppy disk or two, though not by enough to trouble a Zip disk, much less a Jaz drive.
A couple of decades later and I would be recording that much data several times a day on my smartphone – and with much weaker justification. My kids’ infancy clipped the tailend of the pre-iPhone era and there are some videos of them as babies, filmed on millennial Nokias, with pixels as fat as their cheeks. But soon enough the improvement in phone cameras took its toll on my hard disk space.
When my kids started school I used to record videos of their frequent, interminable, mandatory class assemblies, from which my freelance career could provide no sicknote. I would hold my phone conspicuously aloft at the back of the hall where the parents sat, to signal to my children my keenness to add this gem to the family archive.
On one occasion I had forgotten to charge my phone overnight and it died halfway through the llama song. I gamely continued holding it up for my kid to see for the remainder of the assembly, confident that she would not ask to see the footage afterwards. The other parents seated behind me could see my screen go blank and smiled with understanding – such was our grim league.
Indeed, as a family we have never watched a single moment of those gigabytes of school assemblies and we never will, though I have transferred the movie files from mac to mac, from house to house. The value of the gesture was strictly in the moment: we validate important events by documenting them.
Of course, photography is not new: we have for years taken photographs to record an event – and to flatter it with recordability. The problem now is that documenting so very many moments, as well as creating for us each a mountainous archive that we will never have time to curate, necessarily lowers the bar for what constitutes a big moment. From the frequency with which we document our lives, you would think we were all engaged in building majestic cathedrals – you shouldn’t really be able to move easily around town, what with all these bloody cathedrals. But no – selfies.
It takes energy to create and power computer storage and to run a phone. There should be something dislikeable to the Greta Thunberg generation about all this data. I foresee a rejection of this manic preservation of the past and the constant cattle drive of old memories to new storage media.
A few years ago I wrote a song called Futureproof. The first verse was about failing to convert a cherished compilation tape to mp3 and then breaking my cassette player, stranding myself from my music across a technological canyon. It was poignant, in case that escapes the reader. To heighten the pathos, the second verse was about negligently overfeeding a fish until he got larger than the hole at the top of his fishbowl and could no longer be transferred to a larger bowl.
His size increased until he was spherical, pressed against the glass all around, opening and closing his mouth to express the dim view in which he held his prospects, extrapolating current trends. The third and final verse was about the fish again, since we were all by now preoccupied with his fate and could not move on lyrically. Eventually, the fishbowl was held over a bath and broken with a hammer. Because this was stressful for the fish, the bath was filled with Radox.
You have to save the fish. But you do not have to save the photos, much less the damnable videos. The past should devour and digest our lives, macerate our memories into a Jungian mulch. Forgetting our lives is like forgetting dreams – it is part of our process. Being our own historians does not make us kings and queens. It makes us historians – why I can feel my nostrils getting hairier already!
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