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The joys of an unreliable memory

How much do we reinvent the past? Eric Bard/Corbis/Getty

The latest Gen Z trend, says Sam Leith in The Spectator, is posting “throwback videos” on TikTok. Having reached the “ripe old age of, say, 11”, these kids are digging through old posts to unearth and critique that embarrassing haircut they sported in the “distant past” of 18 months ago, or reminisce with friends about “Snapchat filters we all used to use”. It’s silly, but it’s also “a little sad”. A whole generation of digital natives is going to enter adulthood in a world where nothing is forgotten. You won’t be able to romanticise or reinvent your own history. It will all be there, “ineradicably chronicled somewhere in the cloud”.

This is a huge loss. The great pleasure of nostalgia depends on “the ability to misremember”. Most of us built our sense of our own history around “unreliable memories, meaningful objects and well-worn, part-fictionalised anecdotes”. Tattered documents, old schoolbooks and tarnished pieces of jewellery sit in drawers and attics for years before fulfilling their real role in our memories. One side effect of this is that people who enter public life are likely to get “weirder and weirder”. Normal youthful indiscretions like dabbling with drugs and making “crass fancy-dress” choices will live on in some cursed TikTok or Instagram archive for all time. The only people who’ll survive scrutiny as political candidates will be those who knew they wanted to run for office from an early age and exercised “superhuman vigilance” to avoid embarrassment. Overrepresented among such types are “the egomaniacal, the priggish and the insane”.

👴🏻🪞“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.” Martin Amis