Memory Motel: 'The Right to Oblivion'
One of the things I enjoy so much about being plugged in to this bursting podcast world is that it really feels like a world is being created. It’s exciting to see an entire medium build itself up in a time when it has the space to be fully encompassing and fully inclusive. It’s finding new voices to fill the public’s interest in shows that tell true crime stories, fake crime stories, conversations about race, historical nonfiction, science, sports, music, and almost literally everything else. No matter the size of the audience...every show is essential; they help round out this new world. And every day new shows - shows that might seem niche at best - are finding their audiences.
Many of my favorites, like Memory Motel, start with a specific premise and tell stories that fit the bit of the world they’re trying to explain. The premise of Memory Motel, as host Terence Mickey says in one of the show's trailers, is to write a "sonic love letter to memory." That’s a very specific and slightly narrow worldview to address, but it's worked so far because the show has told stories that give its purpose some strong validation.
Take Memory Motel’s three-part series called “The Right to Oblivion” as an example of a show moving toward fulfillment of its mission (Revisionist History did this with its Wilt Chamberlain episode). The series examines the memory of the internet and the problematic permanence of our digital identities. Each episode is different but relates to the same questions - Can we be found by digital means if we try to disappear in real life? How far do our digital lives reach? How far will they follow us? As WIRED's Evan Ratliff says in the first episode, "There is some value in things going away...If you could preserve everything in your life, is that really a positive? I tend to think no."
We've all experienced the internet's relentless memory. In fact, just today I was looking for the details of a purchase I made five years ago (so I could make the same purchase again) and had to dive into an old email inbox to find it. In there, I found some 7,000 unread emails: Facebook notifications, spam, that specific purchase receipt, and old emails I sent to important people in my life. As I skimmed through them, I hardly recognized the voice of the person writing those messages, but I knew they were personal, and sometimes revealing, and I remembered that I'd been meaning to delete that old account for a while now. But what Motel's series does is examine whether anything is actually deleted, whether the memory of the internet is the same as our brains, whether all you have to do to find an old piece of information is type the right search terms.
The show stops short of casting outright judgment about whether the internet's memory bank is a good or a bad thing - it's both, I'd say, like everything - but it does a thorough enough job of outlining the shortcomings of our online lives bleeding into life offline. We're in the infancy of internet privacy laws like the European 'Right To Be Forgotten,' which seems likely to spread in some form to larger parts of the world. For now, though, what do we do about the things the internet already knows about us? I'm not one to worry about this, but I understand why maybe I should and why others do.
If I had to nitpick at such a good series, I would say this: One thing the series doesn't touch on much at all is what good can come of the internet's long memory. We're seeing the benefits of that right now in our political season - the internet's long memory has kept alive vital information, which will help us make informed choices a few Tuesdays from now and in elections down the line. Information online has the lifespan of styrofoam, and sometimes that can be a good thing.
-Here are a couple more great multi-episode series for you: Reply All's "On The Inside" and The Truth's "Songonauts"
-In honor of Mystery Show, recently canceled by Gimlet Media, I recommend listening to the episode about Jake Gyllenhaal's height. I'm not quite as big a fan of Mystery Show as everyone else is but conversation at the end of that episode is joyous.
-I haven't gotten to it yet, but I've heard amazing reviews for This American Life's most recent episode, called "Seriously?" Trigger warning: It deals with our current presidential election.
-Season two of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text premieres on October 25. The premise of the show is one of my personal favorites: The hosts - Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile - read the Harry Potter series chapter-by-chapter as if they were teaching the Bible or Quran or any sacred text in a religious studies class. The episodes I've heard in season one are really interesting.
That's it for now! I'll have another one of these for you next week.
p.s. an understated goal of this newsletter is to shine light on shows that you wouldn't normally be exposed to - independent ones, ones from smaller production houses, etc. That's in part because I'm a member of the independent podcast producer society and in part because I love podcasts made by the "small" guys as much as the "big" guys.