Postcards, Messages and Memories


By Samuel Greengard

A few days ago, I accompanied a friend while she attempted to track down a picture postcard of our hometown, West Linn, Ore. We spent about an hour driving around town, and we visited a half a dozen merchants—including greeting card shops and a drugstore—before we realized that picture postcards are heading for the endangered list.

The good news is that we finally found a postcard featuring nearby Portland. The bad news is that picture postcards, like many once popular items, are becoming irrelevant relics of the past. Today, cards, letters, tickets and other printed items have been replaced by pixels on a smartphone screen. There's an app for that!

There are clear advantages to electronic communication. It's remarkable to be able to send a friend or family member a digital photo of the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower while you're there. It's great to know that they will receive the MMS or email almost instantly. It's also incredibly cool to post a picture on Facebook.

The immediacy and intimacy of today's digital interactions are mind-bending—particularly for those of us who grew up in an era of rotary dial phones and film cameras. But who keeps text messages and Facebook posts in perpetuity? Does anyone believe for a nanosecond that we will view them 10 or 50 years later?

On the other hand, I still have a box filled with postcards from all over the world. These include cards I received from my mom while I attended Boy Scout camp and others from my parents when they visited my father's hometown of Williston, N.D., in the 1960s, while my siblings and I stayed with an aunt.

I also possess a stack of ticket stubs from concerts, paper baggage tags from flights, tickets from basketball and baseball games (including the World Series) and a lot more. Looking through these mementos evokes powerful memories about places, friends and experiences. They connect me to special times in my life and, in a sense, validate that I have lived, loved and experienced some amazing things.

The disappearance of these artifacts is more than the sum of a box to be viewed at different moments during our life. One has to wonder how—not if—digital technology changes and rearranges our perceptions, memories and collective experiences.

Only time and digital pixels will tell.