Anyone scanning my bookshelves to get a sense of my taste and personality will inevitably come across a few long out-of-date guidebooks.
If a curious browser picked up my battered 1997 copy of Lonely Planet’s Tahiti & French Polynesia guidebook, they might note a faint sweet smell of ylang ylang blossom still present over a decade after I pressed some flowers between the pages, or the mark on the back cover from an ex-cockroach that tried to share a tiny bathroom with me, or the corners stained and curled from rain, sweat and sea water.
I don’t keep the book for the travel tips; I keep it because every page is steeped in memories. They might also notice that the guidebooks stop showing up on my shelf after about 2010, as I shifted more and more to digital formats invisible to the casual onlooker. It looks like there’s a gap in my life.
As media shifts from tangible to intangible formats – a process often termed ‘dematerialisation’ – it throws up a few questions about identity. In the absence of music collections, books and albums of photos on display, how do we express who we are in our own homes? What are our conversation starters? And how can you assess someone’s character without asking them to hand over their devices?
Identity is only part of the issue, and a relatively superficial part at that. Objects we collect are a form of memory storage, a three-dimensional map of people, places, and emotions from different points in our lives. Computers use backup; we use mementos. The word ‘memento’ comes from the imperative form of the Latin meminisse, to remember. A memento demands that you actively remember. I thought the carved mango wood bowl I bought in Chiang Mai was beautiful when I bought it. Now I disagree with my former self, but I keep it because it transports me straight to that moment, wandering the night market with friends, smoking a cigarette as if I actually liked it, convinced my pocket was about to get picked – but, for once, not really caring if it did. That is a powerful ugly bowl.
For computers, memory is shifting from boxes on our desks to the cloud – yes, even the memory of computers appears to be dematerialising now. Can human memory make a parallel transition to a world of purely digital mementos? Or are we hardwired to relate to hard copies, to objects we can see, to things we can reach out and touch?
Research on this question is still quite new, but it does seem that people can place great emotional value in digital media, particularly photos, videos and important pieces of correspondence. But there is a paradox at work here: a memento needs to be encountered commonly, or at least spontaneously, for it to be an effective memory-jogging tool. For digital mementos, this means – curiously – that we need to 'rematerialise' them, a process underlined by the popularity of devices such as digital picture frames.
I take solace from the fact that mementos will always require some sort of physical presence; our walls will not be bare, and I will always have a place for my ugly mango wood bowl.