Sam Seely

Making time

Last week I finished Sally Mann’s excellent memoir Hold Still. The book discusses memory and the impact mediums like photography have on our ability to recall it. More than just an entertaining read about life in the south, Hold Still surfaces interesting questions about what technology means for our ability to remember the past.

Mann, a famous American photographer, probably best known for her most controversial work, Immediate Family, writes Hold Still as a recollection of her life, accompanied by the pictures she’s taken in her career. Early on in the book, Mann voices the belief that she’s lost something of her past to photography. That in taking photos, in splicing those instants into still frames, she’s lost them to time.

"Once photographed, whatever you had ‘really seen’ would never be seen by the eye of memory again. It would forever be cut from the continuum of being, a mere sliver, a slight, translucent paring from the fat life of time; elegiac, one-dimensional, immediately assuming the amber quality of nostalgia: an instantaneous memento mori."

Mann’s message here is a gloomy one. She’s writing this book in search of lost memories. If we’re to understand Mann, it’s her lifelong dedication to photography that’s pushed these memories, existing on film alone, out of her reach.

There seems to be a slight hypocrisy in Mann pointing fingers at cameras for denying her of memory, especially when it’s the pictures she’s taken that serve as the narrative backbone of Hold Still. Without photography, Mann’s story -- in life and in the pages of her memoir -- would look very different.

Taken from another angle, we might say that these pictures aren’t voiding memory; they are memory in proxy. That Mann’s photography is serving as a sort of analog memory management system.

There’s a comparison to be made here between the memory management Mann comes to terms with in Hold Still -- “are they still my memories if they live in photos and not in my mind?” -- and the abstraction we’ve seen in programming languages in the last decades. (This seems like a leap. Stick with me.)

In the history of computing (and I’m hugely generalizing for the sake of brevity here,) programming languages have moved away from the machine, taking memory management out of the hands of the programmer and automating it at runtime.

There are functional benefits and drawbacks to automating memory management. On one hand, it makes life easier for the programmer. They can spend less time manually referencing objects and more time focusing their efforts on the larger idea of what it is they want to build. On the other hand, they forgo a lot of the efficiencies and performance benefits to be had from manual memory management.

I bring this up to say: there are functional benefits to automated memory management in computing. Can we say them same thing about managing our own memories?

Yes. Memory, and the stories it allows us to pass between generations, is an important and defining characteristic of the human species. In fact, it might be the defining characteristic.

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari examines what it was about a certain species of stringy, bipedal primate named Homo sapiens, that led to its sudden domination of the food chain and Earth’s larger ecosystem. More than our opposable thumbs or upright posture -- both characteristics of other species in the Homo genus that eventually lost out to us sapiens -- it was our ability to communicate, to create binding mythologies and stories, and to pass those stories down to future generations, that ultimately led to the success of sapiens.

When it comes to memory management, humans have a long history of outsourcing memory to ledgers of record. Writing is a good example.

As sapiens hit the agricultural revolution, it was the invention of writing that enabled them to manage quantities and payments of harvest that couldn’t be tallied in the human brain. It was writing that enabled humans to stop spending so much of their mental bandwidth memorizing old epics so they could write new ones instead.

"Writing’s most important task continued to be the storage of reams of mathematical data… The Hebrew Bible, the Greek Iliad, the Hindu Mahabharata and the Buddhist Tipitika all began as oral works. For many generations they were transmitted orally and would have lived on even had writing never been invented. But tax registries and complex bureaucracies were born together with partial script, and the two remain inexorably linked to this day."

So does all of this memory management mean that sapiens are collectively trending towards an ability to remember less and less? Do we lose the ability to remember something once it can be searched on Google?

I don’t think so. With all of this memory management we’re indexing, not forgetting. We’re developing long-term storage, freeing up instant access memory for our day-to-day, and leaving memories to photo albums and other catalogs.

In the case of Mann, we might tell her to find consolation in the photos she’s taken. That they’ve given her a cache of sorts; memories that exist outside of her direct grasp, but still in reach with the right reference.

By the end of her memoir this much is clear. Mann hasn’t lost memories. She just needed to look through her stores to find them. Hold Still is that search’s return.