This week I attended a presentation by the digital magazine, the Atavist, an e-reader app for long-form narrative journalism. The panel discussion “Memoirs in the Digital Age” featured two memoirists: author and professor Cris Beam and journalist of science and culture David Dobbs. Clive Thompson, contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine who has written about how technology has affected our collective memory, joined them. Both Beam and Dobbs have recently authored their own memoirs, which focus on stories about their mothers.
Like the rest of the media community, I’m quickly becoming fascinated by the potential of tablet storytelling and the sense of discovery that interactivity can provide. I was curious about nuts and bolts topics like: what did the authors think were their most successful “moments of interactive discovery;” how were the stories developed differently for the tablet app; did the tablet format provide any specific challenges, etc. However, the panel discussion and following Q&A turned much more philosophical than I had anticipated, which left me considering how memory & technology inform my own process.
WHAT IS MEMOIR
Let’s start with the questions that Beam asked: What is Memoir? Is it Memory or History? It’s an important distinction to make because memory is always a subjective point of view. It’s why siblings raised in the same home can remember the same family event differently. Thompson offered that when we remember something, it’s not like we open a filing cabinet in our brains, pull out the file and put it away. Each time we pull out the file, we revise the memory a little bit, and that cycle continues for the rest of our lives. In other words, the very act of remembering can change our memories. Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism or a way to learn from experience. Imagine bearing a painful memory in the same real and raw way that the event occurred each time you think about it. (Click here to read more about the science and plasticity of memory and the research of neuroscientist Karim Nader at McGill University in Montreal).
As we construct memoirs in whatever format (print, documentary or tablet stories), we collapse events and timelines and we highlight specific details while discarding others for the sake of advancing the story. Memoirs become subjective, not a strict record of what actually happened.
SIFTING THROUGH VIRTUAL MOUNDS OF DATA
In direct contrast to the fuzzy subjective nature of memory, we have also reached a period in which technology makes it possible for us to create and accumulate tremendous amounts of personal data. Consider how little effort is required to document and post events these days – many people have a video camera on their phones; there’s no wait time to develop film; and email can be sent around the world with thoughtless abandon. Thompson added that as we copy our old hard drives onto new computers, the hard drives live as “virtual Russian nesting dolls,” providing windows into our own recent history. Now we can constantly and relatively easily recall everything we’ve written, from things we were working on 10 years ago to the embalmed emails of past relationships.
This massive expanding growth of information begs the question: Who has the time to sift through the virtual mounds of data? The answer is that 800 million of us are already doing it, casually and voluntarily archiving our lives through social networks like Facebook and Youtube. The addition of Facebook’s Timeline will preserve Facebook activity forever. But remember, these posts are subjective as well. We only publish status updates that support the identity that we want people to see. Is it healthy to be able to review our lives exactly as we post because of Facebook’s Timeline? And do we really want other people to be able to review our Timelines forever? What becomes of the self-editing of memories as a coping mechanism? Will this change us as a society?
As a producer of non-fiction television, I work with original source material all the time. I know my way around an archive, and I understand the impact that original (and rare) photos, footage and letters bring to the story. In television, you never have the luxury of time to sort through it all, and the budget for rights and clearances makes this process even more challenging. Often a post production schedule is squeezed into 4-8 weeks for an hour of tv. You need to figure out quickly what is going to work, how much you can afford and hope that the cream always rises to the top.
Obviously, the digitization of information makes research so much easier to do and target. Dobb’s memoir, “My Mother’s Lover,” explores a secret desire his mother left him on her deathbed: to have her ashes sprinkled into the Pacific Ocean so that she could be with Angus for eternity. The mystery: who the hell was Angus? Dobb’s research led him to the World War II Honor Roll, a list of American casualties, which had recently been posted online as a searchable database. Through this and other online resources, he was able to put together the pieces of his mother’s secret war-time love affair.
Why is this important to the documentarian? I make a living by interviewing people. Each interview subject has a point of view, as do I, the story teller. It’s unrealistic to think that one person can tell me exactly what happened. But she can absolutely tell me about her experience and how she feels about it now. So what is real? I reconcile this complicated notion of memory with the responsibility of being true to the emotional experience of my subjects and relaying that honestly to the viewer. And somewhere in between memory and recorded history, lies the truth.