Screen Memories

Scott McLemee reviews Kate Eichhorn's The End of Forgetting: Growing Up With Social Media.

July 5, 2019

Someone brought a video recorder to Thanksgiving 1980, during my final year of high school. Not a close relative, certainly. Back then, it was too insanely extravagant a piece of consumer electronics for any of us to imagine buying one. (Not for several years, anyway.)

The camera sat on a tripod and recorded the holiday goings-on, which were shown -- continuously, as they were happening -- on a nearby television set. It would have been able to record two to four hours, depending on the format and system. A blank video cassette cost the equivalent of $50 to $75 in today's currency. There was much apprehension over very young family members getting too close and knocking something over.

The novelty of seeing one's actions and expressions from the outside, in real time, was intriguing but unsettling. Nothing meaningful or interesting happened, and I cannot imagine anybody getting bored enough to watch the recording. But it means that my 17-year-old doppelgänger may be preserved on a tape in an attic someplace in Oklahoma, and that possibility, however slim, has kept the memory vivid. No adolescent photograph would ever be as awkward. The tape was probably Betamax: technological obsolescence can have its upside.

This unseasonable trip down the rabbit hole of memory was occasioned by Kate Eichhorn's The End of Forgetting: Growing Up With Social Media (Harvard University Press). Eichhorn, an associate professor of culture and media at the New School, writes about an experience of self, technology and the passing of time almost exactly opposite to my own. Most 17-year-olds today probably do not remember a time when they had not yet seen themselves onscreen. Chances are that many of the videos will have been their own recordings. Creating them requires no technical skill, and duplicating or transporting them is equally effortless.

None of the technology is unwieldy or uncommon, or all that expensive. And while the storage capacity of a phone or laptop is not boundless, neither is it much of an obstacle. Everything ends up in the cloud eventually. (That may not be literally true, but all trends lead in that direction.) "With analogue media," Eichhorn says, "there is invariably a time lag between the moment of production and the moment of broadcasting; in the case of digital media, production and broadcasting often happen simultaneously or near simultaneously. Adolescents are in effect … experiencing the social world via documentary platform." And it is a kind of social death when they can't.

In this cultural ecosystem, the normal excruciations of adolescent self-consciousness are ramped up and acted out -- often before an audience of unlimited potential size -- then preserved for posterity, in endlessly duplicable form.

Without realizing it, Eichhorn maintains, we have introduced a new element into not just social interaction but the formation of a sense of personal identity. The End of Forgetting emphasizes what the neo-Freudian psychologist Erik Erikson called the moratorium, granted to adolescent experience in industrialized society for most of the 20th century. It was, he wrote, "a psychosocial stage between childhood and adulthood, and between the morality learned by the childhood and the ethics to be developed by the adult," a phase of development "characterized by a selective permissiveness on the part of society and a provocative playfulness on the part of youth."

Of course, the "selective permissiveness" never applied equally across distinctions of race, class and gender, while the "provocative playfulness" inspired many a social panic. But when it did apply, the moratorium functioned largely because of the limits of memory. Institutional records could be sealed; embarrassing photos somehow disappeared from the family album; zines full of ranting and poetry seldom have large print runs.

The potential for embarrassment increased by several orders of magnitude after America's Funniest Home Videos debuted at the end of 1989, but even that looks minimal in the wake of YouTube. Two or three cases of extreme humiliation and bullying via digital video are now familiar to millions of people.

Eichhorn discusses them while acknowledging the ethical dilemma that doing so runs the risk of perpetuating mindless cruelty. But her point is that the famous examples represent the tip of the iceberg. Digital images are produced and circulated now in ways that encourage the self-expression and experimentation that Erikson regarded as one of the privileges of youth -- while at the same time creating a permanent record that is potentially inescapable.

Inescapable, that is, because unforgettable. The author quotes Nietzsche's trenchantly proto-psychoanalytic characterization of forgetfulness as "an active ability to suppress, positive in the strongest sense of the word." The psyche's capacity to record experiences is simultaneously engaged in tagging some files and deleting others, so to speak. The same intuition informs Freud's concept of "screen memories," in which fragments of experience from early childhood are cut up, combined and reconfigured. "[A] number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves," Freud writes.

We are bound to read "screen" here in 21st-century terms, though Eichhorn indicates that Freud's original term implied covering or concealment rather than projection. The point, in any case, is a sense of personal identity is shaped by a confluence of memory and forgetting. Maturity comes from experience, including the unpleasant kind -- but also from limiting how intensely we remember parts of it, as well as our ability to leave some of it behind entirely. (Sometimes literally, by moving to another place.)

"Digital media," writes Eichhorn, "are both unforgiving and 'unforgetting.' … Unlike the park, the backseat of a car or a suburban rec room, what unfolds online for youth is, in some respects, already part of the public record. Even if we agreed as a society to look the other way, the conditions to do so are, in effect, already severely eroded. Digital space and digital time both work against the very possibility of a psychosocial moratorium for youth."

It could only be restored only by deleting enormous amounts of digital material, scattered across countless systems, or at least removing it from public access or further circulation. Even if data erasure on such a scale is possible, it won't be easy nor equitably available. "Young people around the world are already deeply implicated in digital life as both consumers and producers," Eichhorn says. "Granting special data erasure rights to some youth in some jurisdictions would not solve the broader problem."

Nobody in the information-technology world has an incentive to delete hundreds of terabytes of personal history -- certainly not without getting something in return. Eichhorn describes various possible compromises, such as for-profit enterprises that will make sure that access to an individual's data profile is restricted for a set term -- or that will put youthful social media content out of circulation upon agreeing to allow more intensive data collection while older.

Here we see a new rite of passage taking shape. Getting married and taking out a mortgage once marked the transition to full middle-class adulthood. In the future, it will be the memorable occasion of making your first blackmail payment to Big Data.


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