Memory

Tomorrow is the 108th anniversary of the infamous 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The annual memorial ceremony at Lotta’s Fountain on Market Street will be held as usual at 5:11 am. What I find most interesting about this year’s event is that, as the Chron notes, no actual survivors are expected to show up.

It won’t be the first time no survivors have been present–that was last year–but it will most likely be the first time that everyone knew it would be the case. Last year, two of the three known survivors had planned to show up, but both canceled on grounds of ill health.

Winnie Hook died in June. That leaves Ruth Newman and Bill Del Monte as the only remaining survivors. Mr. Del Monte was only three months old when the earthquake occurred, which means that Ms. Newman, who is now 112, is the only person who actually remembers the quake.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of recordings of survivors accounts–that’s a guess, but it seems like a safe one–in a variety of media, so the world won’t lose that piece of its collective memory when Ms. Newman is no longer with us. Even so, I find it sobering to contemplate the impending lack of a living memory of the event.

Some might argue that it doesn’t matter. Memorex had a very successful advertising campaign based on the notion that there is no difference between a recording and the original event. On the other hand, McLuhan would, I’m sure, disagree.

I doubt that any of the people reading this blog post will ever visit Ms. Newman and hear her account of the earthquake in person. And yet, the possibility exists–for now.

In addition to his status as a survivor of the 1906 earthquake, Mr. Del Monte has another distinction: he’s one of the few people who can give a first-hand account of losing more than a million dollars in the Wall Street stock market crash of 1929. Who wouldn’t prefer to meet him and hear him tell the tale rather than hearing it on tape or film?

If there’s a qualitative difference between a live memory and a recorded memory, then allow me to ask a question I can’t fully answer: Is there a qualitative difference between a recorded memory and a memory of a live memory? In other words, which is better in terms of recreating the entire experience of the 1906 earthquake: watching a video of Ms. Newman telling her tale, or sitting with someone recounting Ms. Newman’s tale as he heard it from her?

I haven’t seen any studies on the subject, so this is pure speculation, but I suspect that the listener’s level of engagement is higher when listening to an oral history live than in any form of recording. The “live listener” will create a more vivid mental image and remember more.

If I’m right, that doesn’t make the recordings useless, or suggest that we should stop recording personal histories. But it does suggest that we should be paying more attention to the people recording those histories. They’re not just people holding cameras or tape recorders, they’re important secondary sources in their own right.

But I digress a bit.

Today there are millions of people carrying cameras with them everywhere they go. There have been many editorials decrying the smartphone generation’s obsession with photo-documenting the minutia of their lives. Consider the opposite possibility for a moment: by photographing everything, aren’t they forcing themselves to become observers? They may, as some have suggested, not see the entire scene, but they’re investing themselves in the detail and ensuring that they see and–we can hope–remember something that might otherwise have been entirely ignored.

Yes, in an ideal world we would have both the micro- and the macro-level views of events, but if the choice is between a micro-level view and no view, wouldn’t you rather have the detail without the big picture?

And consider: when the next big earthquake strikes San Francisco, we’ll have the details documented, and we can create the big picture. Nothing new in that, of course. People have been building overviews by collecting multiple detailed perspectives since about thirty seconds after language was invented. But I’ll suggest here that the sheer number of detailed perspectives we’re creating today give us the ability to build a pseudo-first-person view. Quantity does have a quality all its own; the recollections of the person who collects those obsessively detailed smartphone photos of the Next Big Quake may be the next best thing to having been there.

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