Back in my feckless youth, I decided to become a historian. I liked to read history books, preferably ones about World War II with lots of pictures of guns, tanks, and planes. Sick, I know. But I was fascinated by all this stuff as so many young boys are. So when the time came to go careering, I went to grad school in history. This was a big mistake for so many reasons I don't know where to begin, but the one pertinent here is that I decided to focus on medieval Russian history. Now, most people can identify Russia because it appears on the RISK map, and some people—particularly older folks like me—will know who Lenin was because a) they loved communism or b) they hated communism. But nobody knows anything about medieval Russian history beyond the "fact" (I'll come to the quotes later) that there was an evil tsar named Ivan the Terrible who was, or so we imagine, terrible. Terrible was not as good as guns, but I figured that it would be plenty entertaining so I decided to study Ivan to see just how terrible he was.
You will understand, then, my disappointment when I was taught almost immediately that we really didn't know much of anything about Ivan the Terrible. We know (approximately) when he was born, when he died (but not how), that he was probably married a few times, that he probably sired a couple of kids, that he may (or may not) have gone on some bloody military campaigns, and that he seems to have had a penchant for wanton destruction, rape, mass murder and torture. But, I gotta tell you, most of this is in dispute. You can learn more about a person by looking them up on MySpace than we truly know about Ivan the Terrible (I think he would have liked The Smiths, as he was somewhat gloomy, but it's hard to say).
I was even more disturbed to find out that some of the "terrible" things we thought Ivan had done were ripped off from (you won't believe it) Dracula. You see, there were these Germans who lived in Transylvania with (you guessed it), Dracula, or Vlad Tsepesh ("the Impaler") as he was truly named. They didn't like Vlad one bit. The feeling, apparently, was mutual. So these Germans began a kind of smear campaign against old Vlad. They wrote gruesome stories that described him doing all kinds of nasty things to Turks, Germans, and just about anyone else he could get his hands on. I won't go into the details, but if you watch a Clive Barker film you'll get the picture. More spin than fact, these stories were widely circulated because even in the fifteenth century people liked to read about terrible stuff just like we do. Eventually, they made it to Russia and then to Ivan IV's court. Ivan wasn't "terrible" yet, he was just Tsar Ivan. But some of his detractors decided to substitute Ivan for Dracula in the stories. You can see how this sort of switcheroo might give someone the wrong impression. And it did. With the help of the "Dracula Tales" and a bunch of other slurs (some true, some false), Ivan soon became "Terrible."
Now you might think the moral of this sad story is "Don't believe everything you read." That's a good moral, but not the one I want talk about. The moral I'd like to discuss is this: "Write everything down so people can't tell lies." You see, the problem with knowing how terrible Ivan the Terrible was boils down to sources, or rather the lack of them. The Dark Ages were really as dark as they are billed. Ordinary Russians couldn't read or write; in fact, most of them thought of reading and writing as something slaves did, so they generally didn't want to have anything to do with it. You won't be surprised to learn that one of the things we know about Ivan is that he probably couldn't read or write. So, if you are, say, a graduate student in Russian history looking to write a little dissertation about Ivan the Terrible you are in something of a pickle. There are almost no good, 100% trustworthy Russian primary sources about Ivan—no memoirs, no letters, no love notes, no laundry lists, no emails, no New Yorker-style profiles. Nada, nichts, nyetu. Well, not quite. There are those crazy Dracula stories, but they aren't much good.
There is, however, another kind of primary source that actually sheds a lot of light on Ivan, namely the memoirs of foreign visitors. Russia is a big country, but somehow before about 1500 Europeans completely missed it, as in, didn't know it was there. So it came as something of surprise when some Italian diplomats stumbled upon this new icy kingdom around 1475. No wonder it was classified as part of the "New World" (Novus Orbis). It's not everyday that you break a story like "New World Discovered," so you can imagine that a lot of travelers decided to write down what they saw for the entertainment of inquiring minds back home. When it comes to books, people like war, terrible stuff, and new worlds about equally. These travelers wrote and wrote, and their publishers published and published, and the books sold and sold. There are literally hundreds of these foreign descriptions of old Russia. While they contain a fair amount of BS, they also relate a lot of facts about Russia and Russians. And it is from these sources that we know some big things (Ivan IV was a very deranged man) and some small things (Russian women painted their teeth black)—all because these travelers wrote down their experiences.
Which brings me to our present concern, that is, the fact that almost everybody takes their memories with them when they go. You are born, you live a full life, you gather a head full of memories, and then—unless you're someone important who writes a memoir—you croak and said memories vanish. Sure, there are a lot of documents that show you were here (that bad grade card, the unpaid bills, the picture of you in your prom dress), but your experience of life is gone. There are, or course, people who remember you, but they will go the way of all flesh too. In this fashion, the past (or rather, our experience of the past as recorded in memories) is constantly vanishing—the farther back you go, the less of it there is.
Recently, however, all this has changed. The rate at which the past is receding has appreciably slowed. Here's why. Through most of human history, there have been serious constraints on our ability to record, communicate and archive our memories. First, almost nobody before modern times could write. But say you could write. Well, paper was expensive, and so was ink. But say you had paper and ink. Well, who had time to write? You're hunting bison or plowing or working in a factory or what have you. But say you found the time. Well, who's going to save what you write? No library would take it (if there were libraries), so it will probably be lost in a pile of crap that they'll haul away when you're gone. But say someone promises to save your memoirs. Your problems aren't over: how the heck is anyone going to be able to find your memoir in a huge stack moldy paper?
But now things are radically different. For much of the developed world, most of these constraints are gone. Literacy is near universal, access to the technology of writing is cheap, most people don't have to work all the time, and there is a widely available means to archive and index our collective memory—the internet. It is little wonder, then, that we live in the age of the amateur memoirist. Today like never before—and largely due to the web—common people everywhere are recording their thoughts, experiences and memories. It started with Usenet groups. Then it moved on to listservs. Then web pages. Then blogs. And now wikis. Everybody is talking and it's all being recorded. The impulse behind this flood of memoir writing—to be heard, to be remembered—is as old as humanity, but it took the internet to allow common people everywhere to act on it.
So, if we play our cards right, no future historian will be in the position I was when I tried to figure out whether Ivan the Terrible was terrible. What does playing our cards right mean? Well, it means first and foremost writing things down somewhere on the internet. What should you write? Damned if I know: my experience and judgement are far too limited to figure out what you'll find interesting, let alone people in the future. So it's certainly better to write more rather than less. That said, my feeling is that people know what is important or interesting, and that most will not write about the first time they stubbed their toe and but will write about what they felt on 9/11. But I say let a thousand flowers bloom and let the future pick 'em. See the world with new eyes. Imagine you don't know anything about your surroundings. Pretend you are one of those European travelers who just discovered Russia. They say "the past is a foreign country," so imagine you're providing a map for visitors from the distant future. Remember, they don't know anything.
A second card we need to carefully play is storage and finding. Projects to archive the internet really need to get up to snuff if we are to truly save the "memorysphere" from vanishing in the trillions and trillions of bits of information in cyberspace. This means, of course, that the internet archive must be well indexed and fully searchable. This reminds me of a sign I saw in a library once: "A Misshelved Book is a Lost Book." Ditto for memoirs in cyberspace. All this pertains doubly for blogs and other first-person projects. They need to be archived and made searchable, pronto, if they are going to be useful for future generations.
We know, then, how to create a memory archive. But the question remains: why should we do it, beyond the simple reason that it will make the lives of future historians less troublesome? I think there are a number of compelling reasons. First, memoirs are interesting reading. People are remarkably eloquent when they are describing their own experiences, and they are always running into the darnedest things to describe. Someone saw a man bit a dog, and I'd like to read about it. Second, memoirs allow us to build communities. I really like an obscure, now defunct post-punk band called The Embarrassment. In 1979, when I was seventeen, I used to go see them at the Cedar Lounge in Wichita, Kansas. I drank, danced, and well, had a completely formative experience. So did a bunch of other people at the Cedar. And I can get in touch with them and share memories on one of several Embarrassment tribute sites. (I liked Seals and Crofts, but I don't like to talk about that...). Finally, as I've said, we should record and save our memories so the truth will out, so it's harder for bad guys to lie about you, me and everything else—now and in the future. In Stalinist Russia, it was very dangerous to keep a memoir. Uncle Joe didn't want any evidence of his misdeeds to be recorded. But a few brave souls kept diaries, and they told the truth, and it is largely from those memoirs that we first learned about Stalin's crimes. Obviously, we live in a kinder and gentler place. But in order to make sure it remains kind and gentle, I encourage everyone to write it down, write everything down. You'll be glad you did.
Of course, you say, people will lie in their memoirs. Yes, some will. But—call me a fool—most won't. People generally try to tell the truth when they have no compelling reason to lie, and for most of the memories we are talking about there will be no such reason. Where there are such reasons, I still believe most people will strive to tell the truth when they can, and in the memory archive (unlike Stalin's Russia) they can. Those few malefactors who choose to lie will eventually be overwhelmed by the flood of truth tellers. The truth, I think, will out.
Marshall Poe is the director of MemoryWiki, a non-profit project designed to create an archive of experiences.