Current Works in Progress

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Reclassifying the Past: From Fiction to Non

The past is a story we tell ourselves to account for the present.1 That story, however, is in the process of moving from the 800s to the 920s; that is, from fiction to non-fiction, from literature to biography. (see here for more details) Today’s children will have such well documented lives that there won’t be room for the sort of creative filling-in of the blanks that has formed so many of my childhood memories. There won’t be any blanks to fill in.

Me as a toddler
My son as a toddler (last week)

My son, by the time he turns 1 year old next month, will appear in several thousand photographs and many hours of video footage. These photographs and video are digital, and much of it is online.  It is therefore easily searchable and viewable from just about anywhere at just about any time. This is unlikely to change. Years from now, if he wants to know what kind of clothes he was wearing, or what he looked like, or who he was playing with, he will likely be able to find out as quickly and easily as he could find out the scores from last weekend’s jet-pack quidditch game.

My Underpants Cowboy™ phase

The number of photographs of me that exist from my first year of life probably number in the neighborhood of a hundred, and that is only because my father has been an avid amateur photographer for most of his adult life. I would suspect that the average number for people my age is closer to twenty than a hundred. When I was a child photographs were much more a “special occasion” thing. Oh, and most of those hundred or so photos of me are on slides in boxes in my parents’ basement. Looking at them would currently involve about 35 hours of air travel followed by a day or two of sifting through boxes, setting up the (hopefully still working) projector, and clicking through pictures one by one. Enough time to play numerous games of jet-pack quidditch. Alas, there is no video of my early days – no one in my family owned a video camera.

My Sexy Underpants Cowboy™ phase

My recollections of my childhood are the product of a whole host of disparate elements: actual remembrances of an event here and there, remembrances of photos that I have seen, but not for a long time, stories that my parents have told me over the years about “that time you…”, stories I’ve told to other people about “that time I…”, and crap that I just made up at some point, and then eventually forgot that it never really happened , at least, not the way I remember it.

My first fish
The benefits of teamwork

The interesting thing for me is that all of it, every aspect of my picture of my past, is open to interpretation. It lacks the cut and dried factuality of the video and photographic evidence my son will possess.  Likewise, because it is open to interpretation it is also open to re-interpretation. The older I get, the more chances I have for revision, and the better my childhood looks to me in hindsight. The rosy glow of time (in cooperation with my inner storyteller) heals all blemishes and adds a healthy dollop of happy with a side order of excitement (that probably wasn’t much present at the time). I’ve forgotten most of the fights and arguments and heartbreaks I’ve had over the years. My son won’t be able to forget his because they’ll be chronicled in his twitter history and his facebook feed (or whatever service takes over once they pull a “MySpace” and die).

The girl next door.
My first wheels

And that’s the final nail in the coffin of the fictionalized (and idealized) past; social networking. If it were just the pictures and the videos, well, those can be ignored. It still would require an act of will to make that connection between that evidence of the past and the curiosity of the present. The nature of the social network, however, is to drag the past along and make it very much present in the present.


When I first joined facebook (well behind the trend, I have to admit) I did what most people do – I tracked down everyone I’d ever known who was also on facebook. I searched for all the names I could remember of people I’d gone to kindergarten with. I dug through their friends lists, looking for all the people I hadn’t remembered. I caught up on all the gossip of people I hadn’t thought about in twenty or thirty years, who were living in places I hadn’t seen in almost as long.

...and now

And then, eventually, I deleted them. I deleted most of them, anyway. I had to redo what time and nature had already done, and what I had unwittingly undone. My friends list had filled up with a bunch of people that didn’t matter to me. All those people I’d forgotten, I’d forgotten for a reason. They were no longer part of my life, and had probably never been a particularly important part of my life to begin with2. For today’s children it will be exactly the opposite.

In the days before salmonella

I have to make an effort to remember the past, and naturally forget the things that cease being important because remembering them takes too much effort. My children will have instant access to a blow by blow account of most of the events in their lives, and will have to make an effort to “forget”. If they decide that some tidbit of information is no longer important, they will have to make a conscious decision to remove it from their “memory”. They probably won’t, though.

Remember when you could take a picture like this and not go to jail?

Just as it is more trouble than it would be worth for me to try and accurately remember all the details of my past, so it will be more trouble than it’s worth to sift through all the minutiae of daily life and remove the unimportant bits. So my children will be left with their stark, photographically preserved factual pasts. This worries me a little bit. It doesn’t worry me for any of the reasons that most older people are bothered by the lifestyle changes of “the kids today”. It worries me because I suspect that it is our tendency to idealize and creatively re-imagine the past that allows us to do the same with the future and that, to me, is the source of hope.

1I’m fairly certain this is a (mis)quotation of something somebody famous once said but I can’t, for the life of me, remember who it was or find it online. If you know, please fill me in.

2If I haven't laid eyes on you in more than 10 years, and you are still on my facebook friends list, you can take it as an indication that I consider you to be an interesting person, and that I continue to be interested in your life and thoughts.


  1. i'm super jealous when i see these cute pictures,hehe, i have lost all my pictures of my childhood as my family moved so many times....
    It's really a treasure of life. you are lucky that you still keep it.

  2. I just discovered your blog and I find your ideas and writing very thought provoking. I'm adding you to the list of blogs I follow and I looking forward to more of your exploits in China and parenthood. Cute baby, by the way!

  3. Stopping by from the blog hop and now following your blog thru GFC and RSS Reader. I would love a follow back when you get the chance. Also, I have three giveaways going on right now and one ends tomorrow and the other on the 20th. You are more than welcome to come over and enter! Thanks so much and have a great week!



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