The Loss of Memorabilia in the Digital Age

Does anyone collect old emails?

That’s the question Peter Funt asks in the New York Times, as he writes about the rapid disappearance of our physical mementos – everything from playbills to baseball tickets to shoe boxes full of photos.

“And so ticket stubs join theater playbills, picture postcards, handwritten letters and framed photos as fading forms of preserving our memories. It raises the question, Is our view of the past, of our own personal history, somehow different without hard copies?

Funt recalls his father’s death in 1999, and the folder condolence notes he received – and saved.

“Rereading them once or twice a year, I am transported back to times I miss so much. Of course, I received many emails about Dad as well — but I wouldn’t begin to know how or where to find them. Besides, personal messages are so much more meaningful when presented in the hand of the sender.”

His kids, now in the 20s, keep their mementos in the cloud – if they keep them at all.

“Increasingly they rely on Facebook and the cloud to store memories. Their letters from college, sent by email, are long gone,” Funt writes. “Many photos, never printed, have disappeared. I worry that for them, personal history already doesn’t reach back as far as it should.”

According to researchers, this poses a real problem when it comes to accessing memories. Recognition, as opposed to recall, is a far more reliable way to call up memories.

“It is the association of a physical object with something previously encountered or experienced,” Funt explains. “This could be because tangible memories utilize all five senses, evoking emotional triggers and transporting us back to a precise time, place or moment.”

For our kids, what will evoke those memories? Will they scan their iCloud and giggle over the ridiculous Halloween costumes they work? Will they even remember going to see their favorite band? I’m not suggesting we need to keep every physical memento we ever acquire – but it’s a bit sad to think of all those memories just evaporating.