The memories of my childhood would make an interesting cartography:
short, disjointed longitudinal lines; incomplete diagrams; lines that begin definite and then fade into nothingness. Stitched together, there would be an easy conclusion — albeit an impossible one — that my childhood never existed; that at least there is not enough memory to confirm its existence.

Lidudumalingani Mqombothi
Lidudumalingani Mqombothi
Image: Supplied

The only photograph to testify to my existence as a young child was lost many years ago, taking with it an entire childhood. I must have been about 12 years old when I stood in front of a chalkboard and was ordered to pose for a profile picture for my athletics card. My ears, in the picture, appeared to have been merely objects flying beside my head.

This memory, and another two — my teeth digging into my lower lip while playing soccer; and my father giving me a beating after I lost five sheep and never bothered to look for them, instead playing soccer — are the only memories I recall with conviction. The time in-between them… connecting the dots… exists only as reason; that one cannot exist in only three incidents in their
entire childhood.

In the age of the storage drives, clouds, social media, and Instagram, it is far more difficult to forget. The opposite has happened: that it is far more difficult to be present; that one cannot remember a memory that is not recalled by their Instagram followers.

The joke goes that if you did not Instagram, then it did not happen. Instagram suggests to its users that it is a repository of memory, but how can this be when its very mechanism is designed such that an image is pushed out of sight and replaced with another — a mechanism that repeats itself — making one wonder how far back in our memories an image from a week ago is now, and how
many still remember it. Instagram, via its likes metrics, gives an idea of how users respond to an image, but the mechanism only works in the moment — it is not memory: it is happening now.

Instagram does not so much work as a means to share our good and bad times with others, but as our own memory bank

With all the images being shared on Instagram, about 52-million a day — the death of a grandmother, a tourist attraction monument, a cat, and so on — how much of our memory do these images occupy? To think about how Instagram is used in a different way, imagine swimming down a river and then trying to return to where you had begun: swimming against the tide is an impossible task.

It is possible, if you think of the habits of users, that the image of a massacre can be replaced with a picture of a cat posing in the window of a home. The two images, while not being compared, hold the same weight of interest, although the former, one can argue, is deserving of longer attention.

Instagram does not so much work as a means to share our good and bad times with others, but as our own memory bank. Scrolling past an image of someone mourning for their grandparents or a cat sitting in a window rest on two spectrums of emotional range; perhaps the sharing is not an act of soliciting empathy or joy from anyone, but rather a means to archive the many deaths and joys we experience in life.

We need Instagram to aid us when we recall our own memories — a well filled with our memories. On the occasion that another person looks at what you have been up to, it also serves as a memory repository.

A few years ago, I attended the Cape Town Jazz Festival and an older woman, seated a few rows away from me, did not watch the performance. Instead, she recorded it on her tablet to watch later; the device’s size blocked her eyes from seeing. I imagine that after the event she watched the performance, to manufacture the memory of the day. Instagram is almost an embryo of memory in this instance.

Alas, the images on Instagram, which now has more than 600-million users worldwide, will continue to flow; we will continue to labour under the idea that someone out there cares about our deceased grandmother; that our cute cat matters to them as it matter to us. Or we could simply think of it as a repository of memory for our own remembering, and not someone else’s empathy.

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