Fossil Poetry #9: Memory

“American Landscape,” John Chiara

“Memory” is a word we use a lot—in our personal lives and our digital ones. This week, we’re thinking about what it means, through the lenses of a dead computer and rock-climbing.

SH: My computer died recently, for good. This happened on the worst day that it could have happened, of course; I opened it after a long weekend in order to proofread a mostly-finished piece, just before deadline. Of course, too, I hadn’t made a backup in two years. In one fell swoop, it seemed I’d lost everything on the machine. College papers, childhood photos, documents I’d use to painstakingly track payments and tax write-offs, a typed-up journal that dated to 2016. It was a strange feeling, and once I got past the immediate hours of panic, not an entirely unpleasant one; all of a sudden, I had a proverbial clean slate—digital amnesia, a large chunk of memory gone.

We outsource our memory very often now. Our phones become repositories of quickly-snapped or carefully-choreographed photos that can instantly “take us back,” and years and years of text message conversations that we can excavate with an infinite scroll back and back and back. Our Gmails are archives of our hearts and minds, searchable by keyword. Our computers, the machines with the largest “memories,” contain more documents than we could ever need.

A lot has been written about the implications of this outsourcing for our own abilities to recall our lives; if we rely on other tools to hold our lives, will we forget more easily? Maybe, probably, but I don’t think that is a very interesting question. Instead, I think what’s strange is the massive capacity we now have for holding onto our pasts. It keeps expanding, and is now almost functionally infinite, as various cloud services compete to give us more storage. Our phones may “run out of space” for photos, but now we have somewhere else, a virtual place, where they can go. Limits to memory are disappearing. We can keep accumulating and accumulating digital material, with no need to ever cull it—a development most of us probably cheer. But it also means that we carry more and more of our past selves with us, quite literally, in our laptop bags. This can be a little exhausting, the nebulous sensation of our digital baggage. Perhaps this was why I felt strangely liberated by the disaster of my laptop wiping itself out.

Of course, I couldn’t actually let it all go: I took my computer to a data recovery storefront, paid $200 for excavation of myself, and received a hard drive filled with my last few years. It was a relief, a joy, to hold the little object in my hand and know that my memory was restored in my hand. Meanwhile, my new computer has begun backing up everything to the iCloud. For $2.99 a month, my memory has expanded.

“The Persistence of Memory,” Salvador Dalí

YL: Recently, I’ve really gotten into rock-climbing. I love climbing — be it bouldering in the gym, sport-climbing on the wall, trad climbing outdoors (I recently returned from my first outdoor climb in Long Dong, on the rocky coasts of Northern Taiwan.) I love how every ascent, be it on granite cliff or colorful plaster, demands a combination of strength and grace, skill and creativity, trust and collaboration. I love how climbers have immersed themselves in a culture and vocabulary of their own. Climbing lingo is a treasure trove for word aficionados like myself, filled with fossils to excavate and examine.

One such word is “beta.” In climbing, beta is the “information” of a climb shared between one climber to another. It could be step-by-step instructions of an entire route or hints about the crux, suggestions of gear to bring or advice on pitfalls to avoid. The question you’ll hear tossed around by all climbers — what’s your beta, bro? — lies at the heart of climbing ethos. Not did you make it to the top, but how?

I dug a little deeper and learned that beta is a technological term. It comes from Betamax — an old videotape format from the 80s. A climber named Jack Mileski used to record himself on Betamax tape while completing climbing routes, which he would then share with his friends. They’d watch the beta so that they could study, mimic and improve upon his technique. Since then, Betamax has been replaced by VHS tapes whose job has in turn been outsourced to the rapid-fire click of our digital iPhones. 

Since then, the medium has become obsolete, but the message lives on. Beta has evolved from a tech term, referring to an hour-long roll of half-inch tape (can I download your beta?) to an ethereal, intangible slice of oral history. (What’s your beta, bro?) Beta is memory — shared and passed down from teacher to student, master to apprentice, expert to novice, she who has experienced the climb to he who has not. Beta is a very particular type of memory. Beta is memory that is collective and inherited, but also progressive and solutions-driven. It is memory culled from somebody’s past experience then used as a guide to make sense of a present one.

 I’ve been thinking a lot about this type of memory. Does understanding how we navigated a particular problem in the history help us through a similar route in the future? Does watching a Ken Burns documentary about the rift of East and West Berlin shed light on the deep divides that currently tear through our societies? Will an understanding of the civil disobedience movements of 1989 — at Tiananmen or in the Soviet Bloc — inform the progression of the Hong Kong protests today? Who do we turn to? Where do we go? What is our beta, bro?Are we bound to make the same mistakes, over and over again, out of hubris, fear or amnesia?

Reading and Writing and Watching: 

YL: On the bookshelf: a ton narrative non-fiction: The Unwinding by George Packer, City of Protest by Anthony Dapiran and Wild Grass, by Ian Johnson. Watched unsurprisingly, three climbing documentaries: Free Solo, The Dawn Wall and Valley Uprising. Also watched The Matrix for the first time ever (was impressed!) alongside a Cine-files podcast analysing the Matrix for a “podluck” (where a bunch of us get together to discuss a podcast.) What is the Matrix in China? Did you take the blue pill? Is Keanu a good actor? Chew on it.

SH: I read Siri Hustvedt’s novel What I Loved and found it…astounding! It was one of the most challenging and interesting books I’ve read this year. Also, this beautiful piece on architecture and love and 9/11 by Eva Hagberg. I wrote about the art of doing flowers in film for the Financial Times, and apps that are competing to become “Shazam for art” for The New York Times. I also wrote about the music we hear on hold for NPR, machine dreaming for Art in America, and—inspired by this newsletter—the perniciousness of the metaphor “recharging” for Real Life Magazine. Finally, I worked on my first visual project for The New York Times, about a high-end art storage facility in Harlem where secretive art is held.

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