Digital hoarding means we can film, photograph or stream everything but risk experiencing nothing

Perhaps there were relatively few hoarders in the past because not many could afford the space. These days, everyone with broadband is a potential hoarder.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In 1975, Marion Stokes, a former librarian from Philadelphia, bought a Betamax video recorder. At first, she used it to tape whatever she found interesting. Then from 1979, she began taping the news – all the news. She didn’t stop for 30 years. Stokes believed that citizens in a democracy should have access to as much information as possible, and worried that the information flooding out of her TV was being lost. So she resolved to capture it.

Around this time, TV news was becoming more voluminous than ever. CNN launched in 1980, and more 24-hour cable channels followed. In Stokes’s apartment, multiple machines started whirring away. She enlisted her husband and children in the project; family trips out were often cut short so they could rush back and swap tapes. By the time Stokes died in 2012, she had accumulated 71,000 video cassettes distributed across nine apartments, bought for the purpose of storing them.

After Marion’s death her son donated the tapes to the Internet Archive, a San Francisco institution that is overseeing their digitisation. As a new documentary, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, makes clear, Stokes’s undertaking was in one sense mad, and in another necessary. Nobody else had kept track of how historical events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall were reported on TV; the broadcasters themselves kept only erratic records of their output. Marion had fought a quixotic but worthy battle against the tyranny of transience.

Today, Marion Stokes wouldn’t need nine apartments, just a few hard drives or some leased cloud capacity. It’s not surprising then, that so many people in the digital era have become hoarders, devoted to their own specialist fields.

This is an age of catalogues, playlists and cultural inventory, whether it’s music, games or wrestling videos. Perhaps there were relatively few hoarders in the past because not many could afford the space (Marion Stokes happened to be an early investor in Apple stock). These days, everyone with a broadband connection is a potential hoarder.

The music critic Simon Reynolds, author of Retromania, has reflected on his own obsession with collecting and list-making. He suffers, he says, from a malady called “archive fever” (a phrase borrowed from Jacques Derrida). Now that the whole of music, past and present, is instantly available to him, he can’t stop listening, or rather, he can’t stop and listen. Using Spotify, YouTube and SoundCloud as his time machines, Reynolds skitters across the surface of musical history, sampling, collating and curating without ever quite ingesting; “I don’t want to miss out on anything, so I end up just barely experiencing anything.”

Even those of us without a cultural obsession are busy constructing archives of our own selves. A mania for recording is evident at every rock concert in the phones and tablets held before our faces. In order to make low-grade copies of an event, we are willing to degrade our own experience of it. We don’t record what we are witnessing to contemplate it later – what proportion of all the images you have stored will you ever look at? We do it because we have fooled ourselves into thinking that experience can be captured and repeated. We also want to prove to ourselves we were there – after all, human memories fade and disappear, don’t they? But perhaps forgetting is underrated.

Emma Smith, a professor of English Literature at Oxford, has warned against the trend for theatres to film performances and put them online. Theatre, she points out, is the last form to embody what the philosopher Walter Benjamin called the irreproducible “aura” of an original work of art. Every performance is different. There are no good copies of a night at the theatre – a video of a play is a flat, affectless affair – and that’s the point. We can stream plays to our phones but theatre teaches us that experience is a stream that cannot be stepped into twice.

The best performances, says Smith, are the ones you have half-forgotten, so that only a few moments remain, crystallised into memories that become part of who you are. When we retain everything, we absorb nothing. Smith compares the internet’s infinite capacity for cultural retention to a neurological condition known as “highly superior autobiographical memory”, or HSAM, first identified in 2005 in a patient known as AJ, who remembered every day of her life in detail – what she was doing, who she was with. Each memory was linked to a news event, such as the death of Princess Diana. For Emma Smith, AJ’s case is a metonym for a world in which our “moments”, as Apple and Facebook have taught us to call them, are recorded, stored and tagged.

In a 2017 interview, AJ – her real name is Jill Price – said she felt “paralysed”. An omnipresent past can obscure the future; forgetting is vital to our ability to learn and create. Franz Kafka said that he couldn’t learn how to swim because he couldn’t forget how not to swim. Trying to make something new in any established genre today must be like opening a cupboard and having its contents fall out on you; Simon Reynolds notes that today’s bands need an exceptionally strong sense of identity if they are not to get mired in rock’s history. I am writing a non-fiction book. Having access to so many sources from my desk is mainly wonderful, but I also struggle not to feel suffocated by them. Luckily, I have a bad memory.

Craig Stark, one of the scientists who has studied HSAM, puts it well: “We call it forgetting,” he says, “but on the other hand, simple storage of information is… just data hoarding. What’s the point? You need to extract something useful from it. Then we call it knowledge or wisdom.” 

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It”

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes