How do you know what your grandparents looked like when they were your age? If you do know, then it’s pretty certain that the answer is: via an old, tattered, grainy, black-and-white photograph. And there’s a good chance that there are no photographs of your grandparents when they were young, and (unless your family is grand enough to have paintings) the way that they looked back then is lost to history forever.
The desire to make – and reflect upon – a permanent record of our lives is as old as human nature. But when it comes to making that record, we’ve traditionally had a limited number of options. The written diary. The photograph. More recently (but still pre-digital), the video camera. And that’s pretty much it. What’s more, these forms of record only exist in the form of physical objects – books, pieces of paper, reels of tape – subject to all the various fates that objects are vulnerable to: they get lost, they degrade, they can be damaged.
Now, new digital tools are making it apparent just how much that situation has changed. The digital age is bringing new and exciting forms of record-keeping, allowing us, in effect, not only to create new, innovative kinds of personal content, but to outsource our memory to the digital space.
Take the popular new app 1 Second Everyday, which allows users to shoot footage using their smartphone cameras and then stitches that footage into a continuous film made up of one-second clips. The results are arresting – time-lapse-style videos that capture, say, the first year of a child’s life, or six months spent travelling, in a way that a photograph album never could.
Meanwhile, other tools are helping us to manage the vast stash of personal content that we’ve all been busy creating over the past few years.
Reep is an app that has an intriguing take on that task: it filters through your smartphone pictures and every day brings back to you a photograph that you took exactly one year ago today. It’s a simple premise, but the result is to turn your phone into a kind of rolling one-year time capsule that offers a whole new perspective on the year that you have just lived, and allows a new chance to reflect on how far – or otherwise – you’ve come in the past 12 months.
The digital space has woven itself around our lives; and now it’s weaving itself around our memories, too. But these tools point to the idea that the digital space won’t just provide new forms of record-keeping; instead, as more and more of our lives are captured by always-on wearable devices such as Google Glass, it will reshape our relationship with memory and with our past.
By outsourcing memory to the digital space, we will be able to ensure that our pasts stay present to us throughout our lives – and present to those who come after us. This has its downsides, too: there are always things that we’d rather forget. But that’s a problem for another day.