When my brother was a baby, my parents (like the new parents in the mid-1990s that they were) bought a video camera. To give you an idea of how long ago this was, it wasn’t even one of those clunky old digital cameras that took videos at the same quality as an early 2000s flip phone. It was an good old-fashioned, film-based video camera, the kind you had to wind yourself and you could accidentally film over your old video if you weren’t careful.
Every week or two, they would take out the camera and film some mundane event in my brother’s infant life – often him sleeping or staring up at a mobile while flapping his bony arms and legs around in his crib. In the background, they recounted exciting facts such as “Zachary likes to sleep and eat” and “we went for a walk today.”
“That’s it for now,” my dad says at the end of one clip. “We’ll check in later when Zachary is a little older.” The tape buzzes out for a second, and then back in; the date at the bottom right of the screen is one week later.
You may be wondering how on EARTH I remember these tapes in such detail, considering I wasn’t even alive when they were recorded. The (slightly sad) truth is that when I was little, and sometimes even now, I sit on the couch and spend a few hours of my life watching them. And like the second child that I am, there are no such tapes of me.
When we ask my mom why they bothered to record these videos in the first place, she reminds us that they “didn’t have the internet back then” and they “had to come up with something to do.
I’m obviously not here to question why parents take videos of their children. To me, it seems pretty obvious: kids are cute, and parents love them, and want to have a way to remember their childhoods. But I do think it’s interesting to think about why we get so much pleasure from coming back to these pictures and videos.
A few years ago, Facebook introduced a nifty little feature called “On This Day.” Now, from a development standpoint, this is one of the easiest features they possibly could have added, because all they have to do is go back into your post archives and pull up the ones that match today’s date. It seems trivial, but I see between 1-5 “On This Day” reposts every single day. It’s move-in week at Vanderbilt this week, so I saw approximately 100000 “I started my freshman year three years ago and now I’m a senior!!!” pictures today. All these posts makes me wonder whether the true power of a Facebook post is in the original documentation, or in its ability to capture a more ingenous time, like the mid-1900s parent with a video camera. I guess it’s no coincidence that some time in early high school, the “wall” became the “timeline.”
This sociological insight on the digital world does little to answer my original question about why we gain so much satisfaction from remembering and comparing. But it does highlight how inexplicably deferential we are to the concept of time: we stand in awe of how much it has changed us, and write that we “can’t believe it’s been three years since I moved into Vanderbilt for the first time!!!” even though time is perhaps one of the most predictable, constant, and reliable parts of our existence. We remark that “time flies,” when really, it is what we do within that metronomic time frame that truly soars.
Maybe it is time’s consistency, amidst entropy, that comforts and satisfies us most of all.