It was the day of the tube strike. Every single inch of my body was in pain, squeezed between heaps of heavy human flesh, during what seemed an unbearably long commute on the London Overground. Yet the physical pain was eclipsed by an emotional one, that of a heart ache. I had just deleted an endlessly long thread of text messages, photos and all kinds of digital memorabilia chaotically stored on my phone from a relationship that fell apart. All the memories of love, tenderness, anger and sweet routines were deleted in a short sequence of heart-wrenching finger swipes, never to be recovered.
I never realised how much digital memorabilia one acquires during a long-lasting relationship until the moment I had to face it all and decide what to do with it: long threads of texts and WhatsApp messages, Facebook exchanges, Twitter comments, long emails, not to mention endless photos and selfies on Instagram or in the Camera Roll... The contemporary digital world offers a multitude of channels with which to communicate and capture moments but what do we do with all this acquired information?
Our compulsive photo-taking has already fallen under the scrutiny of academic research. Linda Henkel, psychological scientist at Fairfield University, in America, conducted a research showing that the more we take photos, the less we remember. This created a buzz at the end of last year. She said that technology has changed the way we take photos and what we take photos of. There is no real cost now in taking tons of photos. Years ago, photos cost money and energy; there was a literal cost - you had to purchase film and pay to have them developed and physically go to the drugstore to pick them so you wouldn't waste shots.
It's not only photography we treat with this carelessness, but also words. Written communication went from elaborate letters that needed to be taken to the post office to multiple chat services that require no effort at all. None of this is precious anymore, yet we acquire a lot of it.
Acquiring and deleting digital memory is easier than preserving it. Scattered around the digital sphere, after my break-up, these bits of the past all keep popping up at unwanted moments as I you desperately try to move on. Technically speaking, there is no facility on our devices to save cut-outs from text messages threads or hidden folders on our Facebook where we can store certain posts or photos until the right time comes. The only real tool we have in managing our past is deleting it.
Deleting memorabilia isn't only damaging for our personal archives but, according to Henkel, reminiscing about the past has a positive effect on our social bonds and on our lives.
"Research has suggested that the sheer volume and lack of organization of digital photos for personal memories discourages many people from accessing and reminiscing about them," says Henkel.
I started caring about my own past after the day when my Mum showed me a few letters that her ex-boyfriends sent her before she met my dad, photos of her youth, and it gave me an almost magically comforting feeling. I felt connected to her history; there was a bond, a certain continuum with what I was experiencing myself. I wanted to recreate this experience when I have my own children.
Yet what are we going to show our children? Automatically generated Facebook films? I hardly know anybody who actually prints photos anymore, unless it's for a wedding or a graduation. Before smart phones came into my life, I used to preserve selected memorabilia in boxes. Letters, little presents, post cards, diaries would be sealed with duct tape and hidden in my parents' wardrobe, behind bags of old clothes... Yet, as the years progressed the volume of boxes has decreased to disappear entirely during the last ten years or so. Nowadays, there is too much by way of memorabilia to go through and no digital alternative to a parent's built-in wardrobe to be found on our devices.
Preserving the past is also about sharing it. According to Henkel, "There are many positive benefits to reminiscing about our past - it makes us feel connected to people, it strengthens social bonds when we talk and share our life stories with each other".
Despite the social sharing tools online, the notion of sharing isn't interactive or emotionally connecting. It has all become very instant, immediate - like fireworks. It only matters when it happens but nobody thinks about the future, about preserving it, about taking it into eternity. We just imagine it will stay safely somewhere in the abyss of the digital world, hoping Facebook will pick it up for another personalised video.
We might be neglecting our past today but as Virginia Woolf said "the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past." Maybe it's time we look through our selfies and WhatsApp messages and relive those moments with a new intensity.