As Maciej Cegłowski, founder of the bookmarking site Pinboard.io, astutely argued in a recent talk, many of our greatest concerns surrounding technology today can be traced to a single, fundamental disconnect between ourselves and the systems we’ve created: human memory and internet memory are nothing alike. Where we forget, the internet always remembers, and it’s from that unerring record that many of our concerns about privacy, identity, and surveillance stem.
It’s no surprise, then, that when Shawn Soh and Persiis Hajiyanni set out to make an artwork that would “comment on the state of society today,” they settled on this slippery idea of memory as their focus. The duo likes to think of their work, “The Eraser,” as an analog version of Snapchat. You press a button and machine prints your picture on a piece of receipt paper. Moments later it’s fed through a hair straightener, which turns the thermal receipt paper black, erasing your visage just as quickly as it was created.
Like the creators of the app that inspired the piece, Soh and Hajiyanni saw the power of ephemerality in an age where everything is archived by default. “With the invention of smartphones and their applications, it has encouraged some sort of obsessive culture of enshrining moments virtually,” Soh says. “Expiration dates are important because they ask humans to reflect on the value of information.”
It’s a straightforward point but an important one. Photography is one of the places where human memory and internet memory are intermingling in some especially strange ways. Generally, where matters of internet activity and personal data are concerned, we want the internet to be more like us–to forget more, remember less. With our smartphone cameras, though, we can’t help but act more and more like the internet. Today, we document obsessively, taking so many pictures that we could never conceivably revisit them all. Not that revisiting them is necessarily even the point anymore. Somewhere along the line, it seems, the main function of photography transformed from capturing moments to broadcasting them elsewhere.
“The Eraser” plays cleverly on all this shifting ground. At its heart is a funny little reversal. Before the internet, taking pictures was one of the best ways we had for augmenting our own frail memories. We took pictures to help us remember; we ducked into photo booths to safeguard moments from the passage of time. Today, it’s far more novel to find a photo booth that lets time melt those moments from the record, right before our eyes.