by James Wallace Harris, 11/16/22
This weekend, while my sister was here visiting from Florida, we watched The Automat. It’s a lovely nostalgic documentary about the Horn & Hardart Automat restaurants that were in Philadelphia and New York City from 1902 to 1991. What made the story so charming is it combined history with sociology, pop culture, and interviews with famous people who related fond memories of visiting the Automats. The Automat portrayed a unique subculture.
I told my sister this documentary reminded me of another I liked very much but I couldn’t remember its name or even its subject. That was rather frustrating. After she went to the airport yesterday, I began struggling to remember that documentary. I got on Google and tried search terms such as “nostalgic documentaries” and “quirky documentaries.” I went through many lists, discovering documentaries I had seen, liked, and forgotten, but didn’t find the one I wanted. I had a vague sense it involved a household fixture. During the hours of trying to dredge up what the documentary was about, I recalled it dealt with music, but not normal music, maybe it was about jingles in ads. Then the word “Broadway” popped into my mind.
I put the word Broadway in IMDB and came up with Bathtubs Over Broadway. It was on Netflix and I went and watched some of it again. It’s about a writer, Steve Young, who wrote for The Late Show with David Letterman. Part of his job was finding oddball records for Letterman to make fun of on the show. Young discovered that during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s corporations would spend huge sums of money putting on musicals at their conventions, and they made commemorative soundtrack albums to give to their salesmen. Sometimes these corporations spent more on producing these shows than some famous musicals on Broadway. Again, this documentary combined history, sociology, pop culture, and interviews to document a unique subculture.
Now, this essay isn’t about those shows, but about remembering those shows, or remembering anything. I often struggle to recall a name of a person, book, movie, album, TV show, event, etc. I’ve done this all my life, but it seems to be getting worse now that I’m older. And, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, I’ve been wondering if there is a technique or system I could develop to help me remember.
My first thought was to keep lists. My second thought was to make flashcards. My third thought was it had to work with my phone. The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) has a feature that allows registered users to keep lists, so I started one for documentaries I’ve watched. Weeks ago, I also started a list in Notes on my iPhone for movies and TV shows I’ve seen, but I might move it to IMDB.
One reason I feel the pressure to remember books, TV shows, movies, and documentaries is that whenever I talk with my friends, one of the main topics is what we’ve been reading or watching. And during my weekly get-togethers or phone calls, I often forget what I’ve seen or read during the past week.
However, is all this list-making worth the effort? I’ve tried it before and failed. It takes a bit of time, a little effort, and discipline. I have faithfully maintained a books-read list since 1983 and that has paid off in many ways. I’ve often wished I had started that list with Treasure Island, a book my mother read to me in 3rd grade in 1959. So a log of all the TV shows and movies I’ve watched would have been just as handy.
But how practical is it to keep lists of everything we want to remember? What about a list of everyone I’ve ever known? Or a list of everywhere I’ve ever lived, including vacation spots? They wouldn’t be impractical long lists.
Most of my memory struggles could be solved with five to ten good lists.
Have I just come up with a new idea for a social media service or an extra feature for Facebook? When do kids get their first smartphone or tablet? How young can you start entering data into your memory database?
It’s amazing that we have memories at all. I have no idea how molecules in the brain record what we experience. It’s amazing but unreliable. What if we had a reliable external memory? How would that change us and society?
What if we had photos and video clips of everyone we’ve ever met? Or at least got to know? You know those videos of people whose fathers took one picture a day or year for decades to make a speeded-up version of their growth? What if we all did that with our family and friends over our lifetime?
What would this take to make this happen? We have some of the technology right now. It would just take discipline and maybe ten or fifteen minutes a day. I started with my reading log in 1983. Several years ago I began using Goodreads. Now I’m using IMDB. None of these methods is perfect. What’s needed is software designed specifically to be external memory, with features that helped with recording and retrieval.
All of this makes me wonder just how much we want to remember? It might not be that much. Theoretically, we could record everything we see and hear to video, but I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t want that much. It would be nice to just have a few minutes of video of our peak experiences. Isn’t what we really want a finite number of concrete facts? A handful of lists, a diary, and a collection of photos and videos might do the trick.
So, how much of our life could be remembered in one terabyte?