Floating about in a drawer in my mum & dad’s house under where the landline sits, there’s a small red photo album with a bunch of photos in it from when my mum and her sisters were little. The age span of this set of photos is fairly all inclusive; there are pictures of my mum when she’s as young as a year old, and they cover all the way up into her late teen years. It has always been neat for my siblings and me to pinpoint the age at which our mum looked most like each of us. There aren’t a terrible number of photographs in that tiny collection, but seeing those few captured moments make them all the more lovely.
Similarly, when I was back in Scotland last year, nearly every time I’d go over to my gran’s house, she’d whip out this absolutely incredible photo album. This album included everything from fuzzy sepia images of people who have few folks still living who really remember them, up through old black & white pictures of her and my grandad’s childhoods, photos of them when they were a young couple, and then finally, pictures of my dad and his sisters when they were wee. Wild.
My gran & I would carefully flip through the album, and she’d warmly share with me the stories of each of the photos. One of her favourites is a photograph of her brothers eating lollipops outside a barbershop right after the UK had gone off of the wartime ration books. The two tiny Scottish boys sit grinning on a step, and my gran would sit beaming next to me, laughing about how that photograph was taken by a lady who worked for the local paper.
It struck me one day, in that sort of blunt way that makes you feel hollow, that if this album was ever to be lost, any evidence of those people and events would be gone, too. Without any way to reference them and an increasingly shrinking group of people who’d be able to remember them anyhow, they’d just… disappear. I can’t tell if that’s poignant or simply just sad. What’s more is the fact that photographs weren’t convenient things to take back in the day. It’s incredible to me that the moments in these old photos – moments which were deemed important enough to go through the effort of taking & printing a photo of – could so easily become lost. It is all so tangible, yet all so incredibly impermanent.
We, on the other hand, have nothing but a vast array of intangible permanence. In a time where every moment is posted up on some media platform, social or otherwise, our lives are so intimately documented, and it’s at a scale that is, quite frankly, completely overwhelming. My siblings and I have that little red photo album, but if I have children, they have access to an entire online archive of the details of my life from the time that I was in middle school: photographs of me, all of my documented thoughts and feelings, my comments regarding any topical issue, information about who I most interacted with, all of those interactions, all of those people as well… it’s amazing.
This applies to just about all of us, and it’s only becoming more pronounced. As we, the original social media teens, start growing up, getting married, and having children, the next generation is gonna start to have their whole entire lives published. The people I know who have little kids post about them constantly – something perfectly acceptable to do (and a practice that I quite honestly love) – and I can’t help but think about how accessible their little lives are gonna be, forever. The parents of America’s future presidents are going to have posted a photo of them in a highchair, covered in food, and it could be up there for anyone to access for always and ever. We’ll be able to see who reacted to it with a love heart in 2016, and we’re gonna be able to see the exact timestamp of when Anne from High School commented “so cute!”.
Even people who make seemingly no influential impact on anything important are going to have years & years and gigs & gigs of evidence that they were a human who existed for a number of years in this world. How insane is that? Sincerely.
The point of this article is not to say that this depth of documentation is a bad thing; my point is just to recognize that it is a thing. It’s a pretty crazy thing. All of a sudden, the historians and biographers of the future start to have an almost unlimited plethora of information to work with. When we die, our twitters will still be out there for people to read. Our Facebook pages are still going to be up there to scroll through. All those angsty abandoned Tumblr pages from high school? They will be there. That internet argument we accidentally ended up having with our friend’s racist uncle on her post about new solar technology? It will exist. It will be there. All our favourite memes?? Man. Unless someone laboriously purges the internet of you specifically, there’s always gonna be at least a little piece of each person out there always. We are immortal. We’ve been made immortal by the internet. Our great-great grandparents may die with the final lost photograph of them, but us? We’re gonna live forever.
What do we even do with that?