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Towards a geography of digital memory

by Alex in | |

View from Sutton Place Hotel

I’m in Toronto for a lightning trip, speaking tomorrow at a luncheon hosted by Women in Film & Television. Tonight I’m staying at the Sutton Place Hotel, which puts me at the epicentre of memory for my first 25 years of life. From the east-facing window of my suite I look down the barrel of Wellesley Street, which ends in the park that my childhood home adjoined. From the south-facing window I see the Ontario government office block where Rob worked when we first met, long before we got married. If I craned my head out to look west, I’d be looking at the blocks leading to my high school and all the tortured memories that are now locked away within its walls. And if I could look almost due north, I could see the former location of the ice cream cone where Rob and I ate the day we first had lunch together, across from the museum where we were later married.

The geography of memory is powerful and inescapable. There’s no way for me to sit at the corner of Wellesley and Bay Street without feeling utterly overwhelmed by the cumulative personal history that lies within these few square kilometres. At age 40, those memories bring a shocking and somewhat painful awareness of how far distant these memories mostly lie, both in years and in emotional immediacy; the very fact that they no longer hold the same heat or clarity is a reminder of how long ago these events took place. With that tangible connection to the passing of time comes the brutal, blessed awareness of what it means to make each day count, and to use well the years that lie ahead.

If walking down a once-familiar street can discipline us in the art of living fully, what happens when our memories no longer lie in streets to which we can return? Geek though I be, my memories are mostly embedded in the physical spaces that presently surround me: my childhood home (where I used my first computer); the Queen’s Park legislature (where I met my husband on the online chat network); the local pub (where a group of us convened the meeting that established Canada’s first online political network).

As our world and culture move online, it will be the digital experiences that take the foreground, and the geographic locations that fade to the back. Do you remember where you sat when you first logged onto Facebook — and would you be nostalgic to return to that same desk? Do you remember where you were when you wrote you first tweet? Which computer you were using the day you met your digital BFF?

Our digital spaces might themselves hold the same evocative power as the geographic spaces to which we now attach, but unlike physical locations, we are much less likely to revisit them. Have you used the Internet Archive to visit your old Geocities page and enjoy a whiff of nostalgia? Looked for a screen capture of the AOL login screen? Listened to a recording of the sound your 2400-baud modem made as it established its tentative connection to the net?

While our digital lives are much easier to preserve and much harder to erase than the specifics of any given cityscape, we are far less likely to discover emotional resonance through the happenstance of wandering onto the digital terrain of our youth. A website, once razed, no longer has a location to which you can feel attachment; nobody notices that the URL they are visiting represents an I.P. address that used to belong to their favorite blog. Online, what’s gone is gone, and even what remains — technically — may be just as invisible if we never visit, and it never pops up in search results.

What anchors can we create, I wonder, to provide some emotional endurance to our most meaningful digital moments? Perhaps Facebook’s Timeline is a start, giving you a way to wander down your digital memory lane and remember the funny site you once liked or shared.

But the emotional memories that have the power to shock us into recognizing the passage of time — to recognize how brief and precious today really is — are not the memories that we carefully curate. They are the memories we stumble across, or stumble into, someplace as impermanent as a one-night hotel room.

First posted on March 6,2012
  • Virgovim

    But “online” living is not anything like “offline” reality when it comes to physical experiences or emotional attachments, combined with the power of smell, touch or the depth of “isght”. So no, forr me I can’t imagine my digital memories ever being or becoming as emotive as my non-digital ones.

  • http://twitter.com/BenZiegler Ben Ziegler

    Alexndra, your post has me wondering about the digital “anchors” we might create… perhaps, as the boundary of what is human continues to blur (thinking “singularity”), digital implants, of our premier digital moments, will make it easier to connect with the emotions that came along with the original moment?  

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