The latest trend among the scions of Generation Z – those born between 1997 and 2012 – is posting ‘throwback videos’ on TikTok. Talk about a snake eating its tail. Having reached the ripe old age of, say, 11, Generation Z is digging through their archives to offer a wan critique of that embarrassing haircut they sported in the dim and distant past of, say, 18 months ago, or reminiscing with friends about ‘Snapchat filters we all used to use’. That’s silly, but it’s also a little sad.
As we ponder world-historical events on a ten-, 20- or 50-year timeline – the long-term effects of Brexit; the resettling of the status quo in European security; even the climate crisis – it’s somehow easy to miss changes that are potentially even more lasting and fundamental. This apparently inconsequential story strikes me as an epiphenomenon of one of them. That is: gradually and without all that much fanfare, a whole generation of digital natives have come to adulthood in a world in which the past is no longer the past in the sense in which we are accustomed to understand it.
Nothing is forgotten. Almost everything you have experienced, every action you have taken, is ineradicably chronicled somewhere in the cloud. Memory can’t play you false or burnish your past with rosy recollection. You can’t romanticise or reinvent or re-narrate your own history. The most you can do in terms of taking possession of it, as these throw backers seem to acknowledge, is to remix the raw material into a mash-up or a sizzle reel – which mash-up or sizzle reel itself becomes a document of your present. Human experience is now recorded on something that looks a bit like an informal version of the blockchain – the distributed public ledger whose unforgiving mathematics underpins cryptocurrencies.
Among the ancillary effects of all this – incidental but probably not trivial – is one that seems to bear on the future of politics. That is, people who enter public life are likely to get weirder and weirder. The ‘youthful indiscretion’ – that dabbling with drugs in your early twenties, the embarrassingly crass fancy-dress choice, the moment of sexual exuberance that you might not care to be reminded of – is no longer something that can be quietly forgotten or dismissed with a noncommittal non-answer in an interview. The evidence will be there, somewhere, on some cursed TikTok video or Instagram archive for all time.
You’d think, perhaps, that we might of necessity adjust our public morality to be more forgiving. But that doesn’t, to put it mildly, seem to be the direction in which the culture is moving: rather, we’re keener than ever on scouring our collective and personal history alike for transgressions. It seems quite probable, then, that the only people who’ll survive scrutiny as candidates will be those who, having been dead set on a career in public life since their early teens, exercised superhuman vigilance in making sure that nothing they ever did could come back to embarrass them. We’ve all met a couple of people with that cast of mind, and they are not the people I would choose to rule over us. Overrepresented in their ranks are the egomaniacal, the priggish and the insane.
But it’s the psychological, the cultural, effect on the broader population that is my real concern here. Nostalgia depends to a large extent on the ability to misremember. The canonical form of nostalgia, captured in the Portuguese loan-word saudade, is longing for a past happiness that may have been entirely invented. Total recall is a curse; or, not to be so sweeping, an unprecedented new psychological and social fact in human experience.
We might snort, and say it’s the fault of these damn fool youngsters parading themselves on their idiotic social media – and perhaps in one respect it is. But you don’t vanish from the digital record by declining to post selfies (and expecting young people to shun their generation’s culture outright isn’t a reasonable thing to do either). There are a million different ways, not all of them born of triviality or narcissism, in which our lives are placed on the permanent record in real time, and in which our mistakes are not to be learned from but to be added to the charge sheet.
Most of us, at any rate among those who grew up before the internet assembled its vast panopticon, built our sense of our own history around a scaffolding of unreliable memories, meaningful objects and well-worn, part-fictionalised anecdotes. Photographs may tell us about our younger years, or jerky and sun-blown fragments of home movies – foxed documents and old schoolbooks, tarnished pieces of jewellery. Those objects aren’t always with us. We don’t take much of an interest in them in the short- or, often, even medium-term. They sit in drawers and attics. We lay them down like wine. And then, bam, later on, we find ourselves looking back.
Martin Amis has put it characteristically well – capturing, I think, the cadence of the process: ‘Your youth evaporates in your early forties when you look in the mirror. And then it becomes a full-time job pretending you’re not going to die, and then you accept that you’ll die. Then in your fifties everything is very thin. And then suddenly you’ve got this huge new territory inside you, which is the past, which wasn’t there before.’ That idea that it ‘wasn’t there before’ – of course it was, but it didn’t feel that way – seems to me the telling one. The past didn’t crowd around us. It was in that attic, in that drawer, mellowing. But now the loop between experience and the contemplation of experience – between life and the examination of life – is closing, and ferociously fast. Douglas Coupland gave to his novel Generation X the subtitle ‘Tales for an Accelerated Culture’. As often with Coupland, he was a generation ahead of his time. The real accelerated culture is now. And I suspect that one of the most profound issues for a generation poring over the memories they made just a few years ago, and the ‘old’ media they used to make them, will be how to negotiate that sort of accelerated recall, that sort of instant nostalgia, over the course of a long lifetime.
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