Thursday, July 30, 2009

Unexpected history

While I was out of the country, Henry Allingham died. I vaguely heard about it on the radio when I got back to England, of course. I didn't realise he lived in Brighton, though, so it was kind of surreal to stumble across preparations for his funeral walking to work on a Thursday morning. Flags and newsreaders. Police and medals. An air of silent pensiveness.

Death is strange, like a whole living, breathing chunk of the present vanishes, taking with it the ripples stretching back in time. Everything the person touched, saw, smelled, made love to. All these links seem severed, as if great wings have unfolded, flap mightily, and unhook all the elastic bands knotted through whatever it was we call a 'soul'.

But when someone with a unique link to the past passes away, these elastic bands take on new definition. These elastic bands were hooked to memories that nobody else had, memories that everyone else just had to read about in history books. We live vicariously, and it feels like a door to an antique reality has been closed somewhere behind us.

I guess we have an in-built romanticism for memories. Or for stories, really. We cannot see them directly, we can't just pluck them out of someone's head, back them up to a hard drive, and show them on a large-screen projector. We like to trust them - we have to trust them - but the only way we can experience someone else's memories is through the stories that they tell. When memories are unhooked, a story unravels. A storyteller is set free.

How does this compare to our experiences in a ubiquitously digital world? What form do our electronic memories take? We document everything - we snap photos, we shovel up videos, we archive everything for prosperity, for accuracy. Our memories are direct. Our storytellers are our sensors. When we die, will people remember us for our experiences, or re-live us through the simulations that we leave behind?

I thought about taking a photo of all the medals and newsreaders, but something about the occasion made me think twice. And besides, I'd run out of film. I turned around and carried on walking to work.

A related haiku.

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