Memories should inspire our days, not gather dust
NEW YORK — As I rummaged through an attic recently, sifting memorabilia and piecing together the fragments of a life, it suddenly dawned on me that I was stalking a dinosaur.
"In a decade, people will no longer be doing this," I told myself, thinking that much in the way of seminal ideas and emotions are lost under the weight of the things we collect. It occurred to me that new digital technologies and the convergences they facilitate will eventually reclaim these memories and make attics and overstuffed closets a thing of the past.
Over the years, humankind, like pack rats, have gotten used to filing away the remnants of their lives - vestiges of events, experiences, and fragile hopes - expecting that someday these might help bring closure or make sense of lives from afar. Often, these nuggets of meaning, like the best of intentions, end up in airless old shoeboxes, relegated to obscurity.
In his book "Wind, Sand and Stars," Antoine de St. Exupéry observes that "the physical drama itself cannot touch us until someone points out its spiritual sense." The real meaning in our lives has, in essence, always been the ideas and intuitions that motivate us, the physically intangible, the evidences of love and compassion - not the objects themselves. And such "meaning" deserves to be kept current and active in thought.
Just so with the artifacts of memory we all, to some degree, collect: the songs and tunes that punctuated our growing up; the movies that touched us; the books and articles that inspired and taught us; the art and images that moved us; the likenesses of people who were examples to us; even, our own early efforts to express ourselves. In aggregate, they have loosely defined our leanings and inclinations and passions.
In past decades, they have been inscribed on the transient technologies of the day - Daguerreotypes, Polaroids, Super8 films, audio tapes, VHS cassettes, writing pads, and the like. Even if we rarely gave them a nod, we still liked to know we could pull them from their special compartments and savor them. But, perhaps too often, they remained elusive and inconveniently buried in closet catacombs, unconnected to the flow of life.
That is beginning to change. Soon, we will be able to hold them all in the palm of a hand and access them at any time from anywhere. Digital technologies have come of age and they promise to clear the clutter from our attics, expose our cherished memories to the light of day, and make them constant companions in our lives.
Now, I'm not a technophile, per se. Like Henry Thoreau, I am for simplicity and experiencing the world with a minimum of gadgets.
But I'm beginning to sense that we have turned a corner with the onset of digital convergence and miniaturization - that practical marriage of standardized access and small form factor electronics, where all manner of gadgets, from handhelds to refrigerators, are now consolidating tasks, talking to each other, and sharing data that was once limited to mutually exclusive channels.
This sea change is already being confirmed by the ubiquity of camera phones and the popularity of handheld devices like Apple's iPod, which enable us, with the touch of a finger, to cross fields of memories in the form of songs, sounds, and images. The value of such nimble and far-ranging access is not just about the data. It is about the immediacy of ideas in context and in movement against a background of choices. It is about the unexpected cross-fertilization of ideas, serendipitous discovery, and blazingly fast and effortless juxtaposition.
Those who think that today's youth are "tuning out" with earplugs are missing something important.
These adopters of personal technology are not just trading and collecting songs and managing their own "play lists." They are organizing their values, priorities, and memories, just as generations of humans have done before them. They are the vanguard of future generations that will have at their fingertips a far greater panoply of resources and, more important, instant access to the ideas that have had meaning in their lives.
Of course, organizing lists of songs or images is just a tiny first step. The creative opportunity is to spin the fragments of a lifetime into new insight and meaningful action, to keep mislaid ideas always near the surface.
Digital technology is making it easier to aggregate the essence of things we once put aside in attics into a personal matrix. And as the ideas that have touched our sensibilities and molded our hopes are exposed to light, they might inspire us to reaffirm our goals. At the very least, ideas that might have been sidelined can be recycled in new contexts. And we can throw the hulking shells away.
So here may be a worthy advance of technology - one which, if creatively applied, might discourage us from letting our aspirations fall too easily, only to be forgotten in some musty attic.
• Andrew Weber is a former TV commercial producer and inventor, currently writing and developing film projects.