Posting for posterity
On digital memory, coherent self-narratives, and the video artist Shigeko Kubota
In 1977, the artist Shigeko Kubota predicted that video’s prevalence would one day lead people to say, “I video, therefore I am,” instead of “I think, therefore I am.” I saw Kubota’s video sculptures at MoMA a few days before the exhibit closed on January 3, and I’ve since come back to that declaration: I video, therefore I am. It implies that video is an aspect of the self or, to quote Kubota, “an extension of the brain’s memory cells.” Video is proof of life and being: a commitment to preserving the self for posterity.
Much of Kubota’s work contends with identity, perception, and memory. Memory, in particular, is a befitting topic for January; it is central to our end-of-year holidays as we go through the motions of ritual and resolution. We wade in memory before spring-boarding towards the future. We are prompted to remember and reflect, both privately and publicly through the curation of digital memorabilia. Anyone can turn a random selection of 27 videos into a highlight reel with the right music or, for an extra shot of sentimentality, an audio snippet from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. This is annual fodder for the tech companies that collect and store our mounds of personal data, presented through year-end slideshows personalized with merry, innocuous messaging: It was a tough year, but look at what you shared! Life is pretty hard right now, but be sure to keep using our app. Happy holidays! And yet, I find these time-stamped memories comforting. They are digital remnants that tend to stay forgotten, if not for the algorithmic regularity with which they’re fished to the surface of my feeds.
I don’t often scroll through my Instagram Story archives, but with nothing better to do in the liminal time-chamber between Christmas and New Year’s, I discovered that my Stories from 2017, the year Instagram launched its archiving function, were no longer visible. Some geo-tagged posts could still be seen on my Stories Map, but my archives only went back to March 2018. The general consensus, according to users who’ve encountered similar issues, is that this is a temporary glitch. No one, though, seemed sure how to get it fixed. Some users had their archive restored randomly, while others tried deleting and re-downloading the app or filing a report. I haven’t sought out a solution for my missing Stories. It might be divine punishment for how often I delete the app. I wasn’t distraught by this. Just mildly disturbed. I was disturbed to realize how confidently I had relegated the burden of memory entirely to the internet, scattering digital keepsakes across a handful of apps without any thought to their vulnerabilities. A lifetime of posting could disappear into the void one day. And I would have nothing to show for it.
This isn’t a hypothetical. Whatever anonymous digital footprint I had as a teenager — that wasn’t uploaded to Google or Facebook or iCloud — has largely faded into obscurity. I’ve already lost access to shared Google Drive folders with hundreds of photos. A photo back-up app I used throughout middle school suddenly shut down a few years ago. I forgot the login for a Tumblr that had hundreds of private journal entries. The feeling, at first, is like discovering a hole at the bottom of your backpack. Shock and regret. Then, the dawning realization that what was missing was quite unimportant. That it was just old stuff crammed down there. Maybe in a few years, I’ll consider my missing Stories with that wistful disregard. It’s a disturbing idea to sit with: Are my digital memories inevitably destined to be lost in the abyss? According to the decay theory, it is neurologically bound to happen anyways.
It’s tempting to turn this into a lesson about technology and autonomy. To make it about what we stand to lose in trusting social networks to be reliable memory archivists, or why corporations shouldn’t be tasked to preserve our digital histories, or how social media might seriously affect our long-term memories. That would be dishonest. (I am tired of assessing our online behaviors on a spectrum of moral righteousness.) It does little to change how most of us will remain device-tethered creatures, likely upon our death-beds. I keep a notebook and occasionally take photos on film, but I likely won’t change much else about how I safeguard my memories. Most people can’t be bothered to. It’s an unspoken trade-off for convenience. Why print out an entire photo album when I can pay Apple every month to ensure that my unborn child has access to my growing collection of ‘fit pics? Why write down a thought in a notebook when you can blog about it?
People have always preferred their memories with context. We like order and chronology, long before iPhones were programmed to sort photos on our behalf. “Photographs seem to invite packaging,” wrote Susan Sontag. This process of packaging, or documenting, often leads us to construct a neat narrative around an event. Recall the oft-quoted line from Joan Didion’s The White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It’s a shame how often that sentence is taken out of context to become a disdainful, Tumblr-ized cliché. Didion’s cutting observation comes a few sentences after:
“We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
The digital memory-scape is expanding, and with it the ability to impose narratives onto these “disparate images” that define our ever-changing selves. Plenty has been written about the performative nature of online life, from declaring oneself the main character to engineering a distinct personal brand. This narrativizing, however, isn’t exclusive to photos and videos shared on social media. With apps like One Second Everyday or Daily Snap that aim to be “visual diaries,” snippets of life are automatically stitched “into a single, continuous chronological movie.” These tools, or narrative shortcuts, eliminate any need for muted reflection, or any adherence to ideas that “freeze the shifting phantasmagoria” of reality. Instead, what’s produced is programmatic cinema: A templated, mimetic depiction of the good life.
We crave order in the chaos. The purpose of digital documentation is not always posterity or performance. I’m not exactly sure why I log what I read, watch, or drink. These minor items should be notebook fodder, information to be hastily jotted down in the margins. Joan Didion, in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” wonderfully described these substance-less snippets as “bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.” The point of keeping a notebook is not to commit each minuscule life-factoid to memory. It’s not a practice for public consumption, Didion asserted, nor is it particularly useful.
Yet, my anxious, tabular impulse to log content feels useful, even though it’s likely a futile attempt at regaining control over the fractured state of my digital memories. Or maybe the Silicon Valley ethos of “self-optimization” has me subconsciously convinced that notebooks, like filing cabinets and DVD players, are archaic, so I need modern solutions. Why spend time decoding messy handwriting when “second brain apps” exist to sync data across multiple devices? In these instances, memory becomes a by-product to productivity. There is an exchange value in recalling “useful” knowledge and information with machine-like precision. Apps like Notion and Mem operate on this entirely functional premise. These tools market themselves as “an antidote to chaos,” wrote Sophie Haigney in New York Magazine, but “the answer lies in the act of continued accumulation.” So long as users have access to every trivial thought and to-do list, they can know themselves better and, by extension, become more productive, better humans. The allure, I think, is in the order and chronology that produces a familiar narrative, based on the meticulous record-keeping of a user’s mind.
After reading about these “second brain apps,” I thought of how Kubota described herself as a human “with two brains, one plastic brain [through video] and one organic brain.” There’s an enviable simplicity to this thought. Today, our brain is splintered across an array of devices, social accounts, and apps. What do we make of these growing archives? The natural human impulse, it seems, is to preserve this personal data at all costs. (Some NFT enthusiasts are interested in minting “culture’s most consequential moments” on the blockchain, thereby transforming digital memories into immutable internet artifacts. A more extreme example lies with Silicon Valley’s transhumanists, who want the ability to upload human consciousness onto a virtual world, or “the cloud.”)
Perhaps we can learn from Kubota, whose video diaries defied coherence and chronology. Kubota spent two years editing hundreds of hours of footage into a lengthy video biography that one critic described as “intimate and idiosyncratic … an eclectic record of personal history and collective history.” Much of her work is akin to modern-day vlogging, but without any of the grandiose self-produced narratives. She lugged nearly twenty pounds worth of gear to document her travels across America, Europe, and Japan, only to distort, re-colorize, and deconstruct the footage into art. Even her self-portrait — which is typically an artist’s defining attempt at self-memorialization — leans towards abstraction and inscrutability. To me, it felt like an honest assessment of the self in flux: harsh colors and abrupt transitions, laden with static. Kubota embraced the chaos of video as a medium; she “privileged the formal, metaphorical, and conceptual over the autobiographical and diaristic.”
What if, instead of tediously curating and hoarding digital memorabilia, we surrender to its messy and disjointed nature? Not all of us have the privilege to spend two years’ time sifting through our accumulating memories. My camera roll, like my brain, is always in a muddled state of disarray. It’s stuffed with screenshots of old articles, excerpts of poetry, mirror selfies, unused memes, and unidentified art. Every few months, I purge my phone of these fragments except for a select few. It’s a subconscious act of memory-curation, but necessary and, I think, natural. Sometimes I save a good poem or meme to Pinterest. But mostly, I am learning to let go. I am learning to trust that what matters will stick.
Some good stuff, according to me
I am reading so much Anne Carson. I am obsessed with her inscrutability, her magnetic speaking style, and her tendency towards intermediality, or lack of a categorizable medium. Her essays typically begin with a simple topic (like sleep or total eclipses) and unfurl into something so much more profound. If you have a spare hour, listen to her delightful and deeply moving lecture on corners.
Stack Magazine, a subscription service that sends you one independent magazine a month
Dispersion, an essay by Seth Price (which I might write about soon!)
Thank you for reading my thought-experiment of a newsletter. 2021 was a weird year. Outside of work, I wrote very little about the internet. I think I was afraid of exhausting profundity. I feared that gen yeet would grow repetitive and saturated with tired ideas. So I started reading more art criticism and manifestos, poetry, and old blogs about the internet, and I am, more or less, inspired.
For more of me, follow my Twitter or Instagram. My inbox is always open for feedback and general comments. If you are feeling generous and wish to support my free work, please consider paying me via Paypal or Venmo @nguyenterry.