How will we remember these summer holidays, now that methods of recording events are so instant, involving little thought and much technology? Remembering is human: the ability to store memories enables us to learn, build relationships and tell right from wrong. what is personality if not memory? or friendship, composed of recollections of shared happenings?
The human animal is not quite unique in being able to pass on memories from generation to generation, but we certainly do so to a vastly greater extent and in infinitely more sophisticated ways than the rest of Creation. we progress by building on knowledge acquired by those who came before; collective memories –perhaps transmuted into myth—are what bind societies together, hence the importance of remembering the Battle of the Somme. Nobody who took part is still alive, yet the memory is part of who we are.
How fortunate we are to have letters, diaries and sketches from the past—nothing so vividly brings previous ages before our eyes. often, like Samuel Pepys, diarists wrote not for posterity, but so that the author had a practical record of events and experiences.
Alas, future historians won’t thank us for texts and emails. Social media may have encouraged a resurgence of written communication, but very little is more than ephemeral and the sheer volume of digital traffic will bring all but the most dogged of readers to their knees. And who has not known the pain of losing a treasured cache of images when a mobile phone is lost or broken?
Two events from last month demonstrate the importance of memory. one was the conviction of an Islamic extremist, responsible for destroying mausoleums and a mosque door in Timbuktu, by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Not everyone believes that vandalism of this kind can possibly be equated with the torture or murder of people, but monuments are the repositories of memory and essential to the identity of the society that built and preserves them.
Recently, we have seen the razing of libraries, museums, religious buildings and works of antiquity in acts of cultural genocide designed to destroy the ethnic groups to whom they belong just as surely as the murder of members of those groups.
However, even Chairman Mao’s devastating Cultural Revolution in China ultimately failed—witness the interest in traditional Chinese art shown by cultivated Chinese—and we hear that Timbuktu has been largely rebuilt. This is, in its way, as heartening as the recent news that a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s, a disease that deconstructs the sufferer’s personality by attacking their memory, may be getting closer.
Fashion usually reinvents itself, so perhaps we can hope that some of today’s generation of history students will have recognised the urgency of recording momentous events this summer.
The BBC and the British Library are already addressing this need by seeking volunteers who are happy to have their conversations recorded and archived for The Listening Project (http://sounds.bl.uk/ oral-history/the-listening-project). As a resource for future generations, these will offer invaluable insights into our increasingly virtual world.