Skip to Content

Search: {{$root.lsaSearchQuery.q}}, Page {{$root.page}}

Illustration of a person’s thoughts and memories that are beginning to fade.

 

 

 

When you remember your life during COVID, you almost certainly will be able to pinpoint the moment when your personal pandemic experience began: the office-wide email that told everyone to work remotely; the day schools closed; when bars and restaurants turned into take-out counters; the day the NBA season stopped.

If we’re true to type, those first clear memories of the pandemic’s beginning will eventually be paired with memories of when the pandemic started to end. The hundreds of days in between will probably meld into a mostly undifferentiated mass of days spent in buttonless pants, endless zoom calls, and streaming TV—in part because those days were frightening, monotonous, and indistinguishable, and in part, perhaps, because we spent so much of them on the internet.

When you remember your life during COVID, you almost certainly will be able to pinpoint the moment when your personal pandemic experience began: the office-wide email that told everyone to work remotely; the day schools closed; when bars and restaurants turned into take-out counters; the day the NBA season stopped.

If we’re true to type, those first clear memories of the pandemic’s beginning will eventually be paired with memories of when the pandemic started to end. The hundreds of days in between will probably meld into a mostly undifferentiated mass of days spent in buttonless pants, endless zoom calls, and streaming TV—in part because those days were frightening, monotonous, and indistinguishable, and in part, perhaps, because we spent so much of them on the internet.

Before COVID, we already lived a lot of our lives online. It’s where we shopped, found love, learned languages, played games, and sometimes confessed our deepest secrets to people we’d only ever glimpsed while bathed in the blue glow of a screen. Yes, there were a few bastions that resisted the internet’s steady incursions, but when COVID kept us from gathering to worship, celebrate weddings, grieve deaths, and welcome births, we permitted the internet to adapt the analogue ceremonies and rituals that had organized human life for millennia into their lusterless digital doubles.

But since so many of our milestones were commemorated online, might one bright side of this crummy pandemic year be that its meaningful moments and memories were preserved?

The challenge of preserving our digital pandemic lives is the challenge of trying to preserve the internet itself, says Megan Ankerson, associate professor in the Department of Communication and Media. Even if you had recorded every data bit that ever existed on the internet, it would not help a future user reconstruct what the internet was like—how it felt to find an old flame’s name in your inbox, to read a bedtime book to your son from 3,000 miles away, or the churn of anxiety that could be generated by a looping animation of three little dots. “Part of the desire to capture our online lives is that they cannot really be captured,” Ankerson says. “Because the internet is so massive, so distributed, and because it’s alive in a way—constantly being edited, new things constantly being added—it’s impossible to replicate. There will never be an exact record or an artifact that would give later users an accurate representation of what it felt like to be online during the pandemic. I think that’s part of the lesson. The digital is very fragile. It should prompt each of us to reflect on what is worth saving.”

Save the Dates

In 1993, when the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) put the World Wide Web into the public domain, few people were able to access it. To find and display webpages and travel between them you needed to use a browser, but the earliest browsers only worked on some platforms and the pages they returned were densely packed with blocky text that was about as readable as a paragraph crammed onto a post-it note.

In 1994, Netscape launched the first commercially successful browser, which not only made those pages easier to reach but brought them to computer screens in eye-popping colors along with photos, videos, and sound bites. After Netscape, the web exploded with pages and even more people who wanted to see them. In 1996, the nonprofit Internet Archive began archiving the expanding web by sending internet bots trawling through billions of burgeoning webpages in a herculean effort to preserve them. After collecting terabytes of data, the Internet Archive released the Wayback Machine in 2001, a service that allows people to “go back in time” and visit archived versions of early websites.

 

 

 

In a typical year, there are two million weddings in the United States. During the pandemic, many of these weddings were postponed or happened online.
 

When she began to research web history, Ankerson expected the Wayback Machine would be like other media archives where you could see exact replicas of what had originally existed online. Instead, she found it was filled with oddities and omissions. The archive was missing years of records for websites Ankerson knew existed long before the Wayback Machine’s bots had first plucked them from the web. Some archived sites had broken links or missing images. A single webpage could have multiple files that, confusingly, linked back to different periods of time. “It blew my mind because everything I had learned about archives and primary sources had been overturned by automation and algorithms, and this opened important questions about evidence and history and truth.”

Memory Lane

When she interviewed people about the ways they used the internet, Ankerson was struck by the nostalgia that their digital history evoked. “At some point,” she says, “the conversations would start to become personal. People really liked to talk about their recollections of the internet, like, ‘The first time I went online it was with AOL and we had to use these disks.’”

Over time, Ankerson noticed that people’s digital nostalgia came in waves. In 2012, five years after the first iPhone and the year Facebook amassed its first billion users, she found people were longing for chat rooms and hit counters, artifacts from the internet of the past. “It was a simpler time when you weren’t tracked—or you didn’t know you were being tracked. You felt like you were alone out there and, when you stumbled upon someone or something else, it felt exciting and new,” she explains. “Nostalgia is partly an expression of anxiety and dissatisfaction with the present, which makes returning to a moment from the past more appealing.”

Historians tend to be suspicious of nostalgia, Ankerson says, because it is sentimental and conjures up an idealized version of the past. The official history found in textbooks, by contrast, is a single story that’s been distilled from the diverse and unruly evidence of the past. In order to settle on one version of history, everyone must recall the same events in the same way, even though we know, of course, that this is neither how history nor memory works.

Ankerson is interested in what happens when we swap official history with the idealized past. “I think the idealized past has gaps through which we can recognize the unrealized past,” she says. “From a narrative perspective, what does it mean that these histories have been erased? Now some of those narratives are being explored and experimented with through time travel.”

In 1895, H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine, a science fiction novella credited with introducing time travel to the popular imagination. “The Time Machine was published in the moment that cinema was emerging and photography was becoming more and more available,” Ankerson explains. “Because it was published after Darwin’s theory of evolution but before Einstein’s theories on relativity, time speeds forward from now into the far, far future, and then returns. There is only one timeline and one point of view. The time traveler never looks back; history is behind him. It’s very white and very male.

“Part of digital nostalgia is the politics of going back and thinking through really difficult parts of our nation’s history,” Ankerson continues. “Black characters who travel to a particular moment in time can explore a story that wasn’t previously available. I think that’s one reason why there are now more time travel shows depicting the Black experience. They are really, really important.”

 

 

 

About half of all students in the United States attended virtual school during the pandemic.
 

As an example, Ankerson points to the NBC show Timeless, which first aired in 2016. In the first episode, Rufus, an engineer and programmer played by Malcolm Barrett, balks when he’s asked to pilot a time machine into the past. “I don’t know how it works across the pond,” Rufus says, “but I am Black. There is literally no place in American history that’ll be awesome for me.”

“The show has particular moments like that one,” Ankerson explains, “but it also has a lot to tell us about how individual memory may eclipse collective memory and vice versa. There’s still this thing in time travel where real historical figures must be preserved. Ordinary folks sometimes die here and there and it’s not a big thing in the narrative, but I think we’re ultimately heading to a place where every single life is important in the story. There are no super narratives in which only the Napoleons are changing history. These stories grapple with erasure and recognize history as a multiverse of racialized experiences. I think digital experiences, personal digital archives, and web and gaming archives are all playing a part in that.”

The internet might be a medium for the culture to time travel, but it’s also a time-travel medium for each of us—a curated Shangri-La where our current profile picture can be a selfie snapped 10 years ago. In Google Street View, you can walk down a city block from 2014 and find yourself in 2010 when you cross the street. The collapse of time is disorienting to some people and immaterial to others. “My students don’t really notice,” Ankerson says. “Their experience of digital archives has become so naturalized that it doesn’t matter if the picture of one block was taken in the fall and the next block was taken in late summer. It doesn’t affect their ability to process that they need to turn left at the corner. For them, the whole experience is seamless.”

For non-digital natives, the chronological inconsistency of machine-made archives might be disorienting, but have we really done any better at preserving our analogue lives? Will our carousels of vacation slides, recipes, and reels of home movies where people squint and wave at the camera be any more instructive to our descendants than we have found the black-and-white photos of Victorian faces sternly staring back at us?

Ankerson is intrigued by the nascent archives that are jointly assembled by us and machines. “You go on vacation and take photos with your phone. Two years later, your phone says, ‘You have a new memory!’ And it shows you the pictures you took,” she says. “The worst thing would be for your phone to say, ‘You have a new memory!’ and when you open it you find your ex. The machines are trying to learn our practices. They’re trying to learn what our memories are worth.”

At the same time, we’re learning to outsource some of what we once remembered to machines. We no longer memorize phone numbers, for example, or what time or where we’re meeting a person. When there’s Wikipedia, it’s unnecessary to remember facts. Now we need to remember how to find information rather than the information itself.

 

 

 

The pandemic has shown us how quickly things can change, including the way we speak. After 18 months, nearly everyone understands what it means to socially distance or to Zoom, and what to do if someone says, “You are muted.”
 

In Living Memory

Think about your strongest memories: the first time you fell in love, the day you graduated from college, 9/11, the first instant you saw your child’s face. Memories are not a single, isolated sensory experience; they’re a composite of perceptions and feelings, neural connections forged from milliseconds-long montages.

When you recall a memory, like the smell of baking bread, the neural connections at its base reignite in unison. Each time you smell bread, it’s also in a different contextual moment—the time of day, where you are, who you’re with—which subtly alters the stimuli from which the recalled memory is forged.

If there were ever a perfect analogy for the human mind and memory, it would probably be the internet. They are both made of memory, accidents, intuition, and chance. They are always changing and being edited, overwritten, and replaced. There is no single place where memories are stored, and no single server where the internet lives. They are unfathomably complex and impossible to replicate.

So far, we haven’t figured out how to preserve all of the memories the mind accrues over the course of our lives, but Ankerson hopes we’ll be intentional about preserving our personal digital archives.

“Usually people wait until their phone breaks before they think about their personal digital archives. If your data was in the cloud, you’re lucky. If not, you might lose a few pictures and maybe some messages,” she says.

“I hope people will spend some time deciding what they really want to save, especially from their pandemic experiences,” she continues. “Otherwise, our digital record could be largely informed by what the algorithms will remember of COVID.”

In winter 2021, Ankerson taught a class called “Visuality and New Media.” When she asked her students to think about their own pandemic narratives, she started to wonder about the students who’d lived through the 1918 flu pandemic a century before. “I think about the lack of what we have from their experience, and how my students have so much information that it’s hard to make sense of it.

“Our memories of the pandemic obviously changed over time, and I wonder how our notions of ‘the before times’ will be colored by the records we have. It’s hard to know what will seem important or feel accurate to individual users with very different personal experiences,” she says. “Can we rely on automated archives and machine learning to capture the multitude of mediated experiences that shaped digital life during lockdown?

“We’ve had to keep moving forward, but there will be time to go back,” she adds. “And when we do, we’ll need to think about what we should save to help someone else know what all of this was like.”

Images by Julia Lubas
 


 


 

Symphony of Forgotten Geniuses

Professor Kira Thurman wrote an anthem to the underappreciated genius of Black classical musicians.

Steering Her Ship

From the Coast Guard to the study of meteorites, this LSA alum has charted her own course.

From the Dean

Dean Curzan discusses how the LSA community is meeting the urgency of our moment.

 

 

 

Now more than ever, your support for the LSA Annual Fund is helping students with financial need return to campus—like Josephine, who is exploring how she can use her liberal arts education and passion for international and environmental studies to solve some of the world’s wickedest problems.


 

Email
Category: Faculty; Research
Tags: LSA; Communication and Media; LSA Magazine; Susan Hutton; Social Sciences; Julia Lubas; Megan Sapnar Ankerson