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January 10, 2013

Post, “Like,” Memory

I’ve been a little wary of nostalgia ever since I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, which seemed to imply that feeling too much of it will cause you to have children with corkscrew tails (all right, that may not exactly be the point of the book). Nevertheless, winter break is a nice time to indulge in nostalgia, since that’s when you get to hang out with people you haven’t seen in months or perhaps years. Plus, everybody gets to take a lot of pictures together.

As I was uploading my photos from winter break to Facebook, I began to think about how the effect of nostalgia on memory will change with modern technology.  Looking back on all the photos, I realized that my life from the mid-2000s onward is far better documented than my life in the years preceding. Despite my relative shortage of mementos from the late ’90s, I still have a fairly genial recollection of that time. Gel pens, Pokémon, the better seasons of Friends…what’s not to like?

And then I remember that I was only seven when the ’90s ended. I suspect that my memories of the decade have been disproportionately colored by pop culture. Looking over the “25 Ways to Tell You’re a Kid from the ’90s” list from Buzzfeed, which relies a lot on appealing to the nostalgia of rather young people, I recognize Trapper Keepers, Ring Pops, the Macarena, and Lisa Frank from my childhood. Other items, such as Fresh Prince and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, did not enter my consciousness until well after the decade was over. I wonder if, years from now, my personal memories of the ’90s will become indistinguishable from our collective memory of that time—like when a Broadway cast recording replaces my memory of a performance I attended because I’ve listened to it so many times.

Whereas I would probably have to spend hours digging through photo albums or boxes to get mementos from the 90s, I can find photos and writing from six years ago by clicking around on my computer for less than a minute.  The increased availability of documentation of our own lives should reduce the temptation to rely on fuzzy memory to evaluate one’s history.  One of my friends once complained that digital cameras made photos less meaningful because we don’t have to worry about wasting film or photo album space anymore. However, I actually like having access to all these seemingly mundane pictures. Photos in which everybody’s neatly posed and grinning broadly are always nice to see because they’re often taken during significant or treasured moments in our lives, but the candid shots convey valuable truth as well because they aren’t so sentimental. Awkwardly timed shots of me eating a sandwich are rather amusing in hindsight and as much a part of my experience as anything else. Though the things we store on our hard drives or present to others on the Internet hardly provide a raw, gritty portrait of our lives, the more frequent opportunities to cringe and then smile at our past selves should keep our self-appraisals a bit more honest.

I try to avoid mythologizing the past. For instance, I have never bought into the popular nostalgia for the 1950s. Eisenhower and Johnny Cash are pretty darn cool, but McCarthyism and segregation? Not so much. It’s worthwhile to be able to appreciate the past, but not at the expense of ignoring the progress that has been made since. I don’t think people our age will be able to entirely escape the fate of lecturing later generations on how times have changed for the worse and casting our formative years as a golden era (“When I was your age, Pluto was a planet…”). Nevertheless, maybe it will become harder to build a prevailing collective narrative about the past that will overpower our personal experience of it. Any sweeping generalizations people might be tempted to make about these years will have to face a wealth of contradictory information from others.  As someone from the ’90s might say, we can just focus on keeping it real.

Jane Huang is a third-year in the College.

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