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Does cultural memory have an expiration date?

  • 08 November 2023
Earlier this week, a friend left me a voice recording on a WhatsApp group. It included a request and some humming. My friend works for an ad agency and wanted to use a particular tune in a pitch her team was putting together. Everyone in the team had some vague sense of the tune, somewhere down in the deep recesses of memory. They knew it was the theme from a TV series or an old movie, but no one could name where it was from.

I think there’s a Google app that could have sorted this out. But I was glad of the request. It got my head into a nostalgic place. The place of remembering re-runs of old TV series and movies, made years before I was born. It led to a flurry of adjacent memories being shared in the WhatsApp group, of plonking in front of the TV on return from school and languidly watching day-time telly through school holidays.

And soon, the answer emerged. At first, I guessed the tune was from Hogan's Heroes but realised that this wasn’t right. World War II, POWs… I was embarrassed I hadn’t picked up straight away it was the theme from The Great Escape. How could I have missed that?!? Having got there relatively quickly (and before anyone else on the WhatsApp group) I transferred my mild frustration to the ad agency team who hadn’t been able to place the tune: ‘Does no one you work with have a cultural memory pre-2014?!’

It's funny, the things we have hanging around in the back of our brains that are partially, or wholly retrievable when prompted. I suspect it gets harder as we consume more and more content. I wonder if the members of my friend’s ad team have trouble retrieving memories amidst the deluge of cultural content, they ‘consume’ in their work. I wonder, too, if the ability to check online and take short cuts to remembering doesn’t diminish the capacity to remember.


'There’s even more joy when remembering together draws out divergent but connected reminiscences. Community is then built on the ground of that which is most personal and human.'  

It’s often said Google and the smart phone kill the dinner party conversation. Meandering, musing conversation are cut short by ‘the answer’. It seems technology’s capacity to allow us to shortcut memory is only getting started. But it is a joy when we remember, and there’s nothing quite like locating