The First Rough Draft of Forgetting
Pandemic memory in the entertainment industry presages the most likely way we'll remember COVID-19: we won't. (Also: Yellow Canary Land 🐤 is going on pause.)
This is our 15th and last paid issue since this newsletter started in December 2020. We’ll take a little breather, and regroup on strategy. Paid subscribers (thank you!!) will see their subscriptions paused starting this month.
If you’ve enjoyed this newsletter this year, please feel free to buy me a coffee. Your contribution supports independent writing and slow journalism and helps me know I’ve done something that brought value to your life.
Recently, a friend and I sat down to watch Life of Crime: 1984-2020, a deeply personal and tragic (in that very Greek sense) documentary that follows three individuals from Newark, New Jersey, whos lives are shaped by addiction. As implied by the title, 2020—pandemic and all—has an important role in the film, and I watched people wearing masks indoors and saw their lives play out alongside my own memories of key dates, like lockdown, a vanishing of resources, and ostensible reopening.
A few days after the film, I thought: wait, I haven’t really seen the pandemic on film or television lately, if at all. The news? Yes. The streets? Yes.
Indeed, especially with the return of omicron, I’ve seen the pandemic everywhere, with long lines for testing, masks on subways and buses, people flashing their vaccination cards before entering bars and restaurants. In the news this past week, COVID-19 has roared back into the headlines with a new Greek letter to add to our vocabulary.
But on film and television, the pandemic is often skipped entirely, and sometimes, it’s referenced obliquely. So observes Adrian Horton in The Guardian:
Last week’s 11th season premiere of Curb Your Enthusiasm, for example, hinges on the reveal of a Covid hoarder – a closet of hand sanitizer and toilet paper, reminiscent of the panic of early 2020 – but takes place in a timeline where indoor masks are no longer a common sight (in LA, at least).
In the fifth season premiere of HBO’s Insecure, characters mention ‘everything going on in the world right now’ and wonder if a favorite restaurant has closed since ‘everything’s been so crazy’, but there’s no direct reference to the pandemic – no Covid, no masks, no news bulletins or testing or vaccines.
One of the odd things is that television and film often reference another major 2020 cultural shift—the racial justice reckoning the US faced in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Shows like L Word: Generation Q and Twenties point to racial inequalities with a new vigor, and even Sex and the City, famously absent of diversity in its original incarnation, has tried to diversify its representation, albeit awkwardly.
But while I was catching up on Twenties this week, one character gifted another a vintage 2020 wine, and she simply remarked that it was quite a year. Quite a year for what? We know now, but in a few decades, will audiences even remember?
To answer these questions, it helps to remember how we remember. The Los Angeles author and historian Norman Klein wrote about the LA’s history of forgetting in his book, appropriately and evocatively titled The History of Forgetting. He connected forgetting to remembering, because “in order to remember, something must be forgotten,” like a twin and tandem force.
The artist BlinkPopShift (aka M Eifler), a friend and collaborator, sustained brain damage as a child that left them without long-term memory. They keep daily videos and a journal and captured their memories. Their recent art piece, called Prothetic Memory, uses artificial intelligence to create what they call a prosthetic memory, with a searchable memory bank and journal. Here’s what they wrote about the piece:
When I tell you I have memory loss, you’ll likely say “I forget things all the time! A name, my keys, where I parked, constantly.”
But do you remember being a sticky wild-eyed kid? Or maybe you have a story from your early 20s you love to tell, laced with seedy details.
I have none of that. Instead of biological memory, I have been experimenting with alternative archives. Part material – paper paint, video, audio, sketchbook, and ink. Part math – assistive intelligence, computer vision, and machine learning.
While prosthetic memory is a tool for individual remembering, it is also a reminder of the tools for societal remembering, where memory fades with each generation. Connecting Klein and BlinkPopShift, I think about the tools of memory today: media, entertainment, algorithms, server farms. If Eifler uses AI to retrieve their memory as an individual, we as a society use computers to retrieve our collective memories, especially as time passes.
It’s hard to imagine right now, but history suggests we as a society will forget the great pandemic of 2020, 2021 and 202x (whenever we consider this thing finally over), even as we transition to an endemic COVID-19. We will forget the lockdowns, the masks, the vaccination cards, the jabs, the traumas of all the new variants.
“We belong,” points out journalist Nina Burleigh as she reflected on pandemic forgetting, “to the most medically protected generation in human history and that protection has made us both complacent and risk averse.” Just a year prior to the discovery of COVID-19, the centennial of the end of the Spanish Flu (1918-1919) came and went with minimal attention, even as World War One (1914-1918) remains etched in much of historical memory.
“Collective silence about a public horror may permit human societies to recover,” Dr. Rosalind Stanwell-Smith wrote on why the flu may have been forgotten but the war was not, if only because “it is easier to commemorate wars, since these have victors while ‘pandemics leave only the vanquished’.” And because, I might add, health inequities often continue along existing race and class inequities, it’s easy to forget them, as we forget most inequities.
The proof, I think, is already being written in front of us: we are seeing that forgetting being written into history in the most popular entertainment media of our time. Behind the scenes, Hollywood studios struggle with regular testing, vaccination checks and mask regulations. News publisher Philip L. Graham famously said that journalism is the first rough draft of history, but these days, we use entertainment media as a form of remembering, too. On screen, and in this first rough draft of media history, COVID-19 is the pandemic that never was.
Future Thought 👁️🗨️🔮
Regardless of what we’ll remember in the future, what we know now is stress, tension and anxiety as yet another variant arrives around the world. For Nieman Lab’s annual predictions series, I wrote about care-oriented journalism and imagined care as a tenet of journalism. What might that look like? I lay out four considerations for the future of care in our changing world:
Self-care is only one of many components of care. Community care is equally vital.
True industry-wide changes in care require financial resources and structural support.
Care is an equity, diversity and inclusion issue.
Care belongs in the newsroom and in the news.
“We’re looking at two long years of ongoing stress, tension, uncertainty and anxiety in our daily lives,” I write, “on top of whatever additional stressors and barriers those of us working in journalism have been facing, with no clear end in sight. As we enter this third year of COVID-19, let’s remember the many facets of care, and let’s remember to extend care to each other.”
If you could do one thing in the workplace to extend care to others, what would it look like? What resources would you need to make it happen?
Going on Pause 🐾
This month, Yellow Canary Land 🐤 is going on pause. We’d first of all like to thank you, those who subscribed for free and those paid, for supporting this newsletter. It’s been an incredible year (in that literal sense of “incredible,” i.e., it’s hard to believe this year happened the way it has), and writing a monthly essay has provided a unique opportunity for reflection on the present and its implications for the future.
Here’s what the pause means:
Paid subscribers (thank you!) are seeing their subscriptions paused this month.
Occasional essays, posts and updates may go out for everyone during this time.
We are not sure when we will start up again, but it will likely be in the summer or fall 2022.
We started with a thought experiment for futures thinking: are present headlines yellow canaries for larger issues? If so, a monthly look at some of top issues might help us think more broadly about societal impacts and trends. Topics ranged from content moderation and a certain US president, trauma-informed journalism, the metaverse and climate change, and how to make space for grieving online.
Here’s a look back on some of the more popular pieces this year:
Heart Breaking News: “We as a society must learn to navigate balancing the need to be informed with the need to be trauma-informed.”
On the Ban: “If US media history is any lesson, we should fully expect a partisan internet, not now, not even next year, but one day.”
The Year We Started Losing Actual Reality (with Francis Tseng): “It can be no coincidence that the appeal of the metaverse has taken off in the context of this shift from the COVID-19 pandemic to COVID-19 endemic, where our memories of public life’s evaporation are fresh.”
2020 isn’t a black swan — it’s a yellow canary: “If there’s anything to be learned from 2020, it’s not that we live in a new age of uncertainty. It’s that the previous age of supposed certainty was built on shaky data and assumptions to begin with.”
Make Space for Grieving: “Expect that those suffering grief — and that’s almost everyone these days — may experience stronger and more unexpected emotions than before, too.”
The Choose Your Own Adventure Stage of the Pandemic: “Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a concept I’ve been calling peri-information. When we make daily decisions about our lives, there’s always peripheral information that influences how we interpret the existing data and information for the moment.”
Elephant Problems: The Limitations of Expertise & the Possibilities of Multistakeholderism (with Nicole Anand): “Most of the complex challenges facing our society today are what we call elephant problems. They are so large that no one person or even discipline can truly understand them. When presented with different perspectives from unfamiliar disciplines, people double down on their viewpoints and become defensive. Over time, polarization ensues.”
Whew. That’s a lot. If you’ve enjoyed this newsletter this year, please feel free to buy me a coffee. Your contribution supports independent writing and slow journalism.
New from Me 💁🏻🆕
Ascension, the award-winning documentary for which I served as associate producer, has been officially shortlisted for an Oscar! Warm congratulations in particular to director Jessica Kingdon and producer Kira Simon-Kennedy. You can watch it now streaming on Paramount Plus.
The Hanmoji Handbook, your guide to the Chinese language through emoji, is now available for pre-order. I am co-author with Jason Li and Jennifer 8. Lee, and it will be available in July 2022 with MITeen Press.
On My Radar 📡
Birds aren’t real, apparently.
The US making of Santa by abolitionist Thomas Nast
Joanne McNeil on tech insider criticism: “There were people organizing Google bus protests in 2013. Why should we listen to the people who were inside the buses then, if they’ve had a change of heart, and are now more politically aligned with the protesters they ignored before?”
Samantha Culp on the late Joan Didion: “Her voice, her image, her peerless sentences, left an indelible imprint, which is by now a cliché in itself. Being basic for loving Joan Didion became an inescapable part of loving Joan Didion, and yet, here we are.”
Patricia J. Williams on the late bell hooks: “At one point bell stood up and spoke words I now think of as a perfect metaphor for her life: ‘Hello, I’m bell hooks and I want to introduce myself to those of you at the far end of the table.’ Her voice was light, high and musical, like a silver bell. Not a tinkling bell, perish the thought. But a meditation bell, a call to mindfulness, a beacon of resonant calm.”
Yellow Canary Land 🐤 is a monthly look at the future of global media and technology. It’s ostensibly about some distant tomorrow, but really, it’s about how the forces of our yesterdays and todays are likely to shape the times to come.
This newsletter is always free, but your paid subscription helps support slow journalism, which deliberately operates outside the attention economy. Feel free to send this around to folks who might appreciate the newsletter.
This is our 15th and last paid issue since this newsletter started in December 2020. We’ll take a little breather, and regroup on strategy. Paid subscribers (thank you!!) will see their subscriptions paused starting this month until I pick back up again.
If you’ve enjoyed this newsletter this year, please feel free to buy me a coffee.
Your contribution supports independent writing and slow journalism and helps me know I’ve done something that brought value to your life.