Machines and memory

By Robert Carroll on May 31st, 2012

Computers are better at recalling stuff than we are. The internet tends to remember by default, so stories about people haunted by juvenile blunders on Facebook abound. But surely a world with less forgetfulness is a good thing? Forgetting is lost keys and angry spouses. It’s old age and decline, Alzheimer’s and dementia. It’s a weakness to be overcome, not something to be clung on to. Yet, in a little less than a decade, digital technology has swung the balance from forgetting to remembering. Experiences and knowledge no longer need tangible artefacts like books or photographs to survive. Thanks to low-cost hard disks, it has become easier to remember than forget.

Step two of an Amazon order asks you to enter or choose a delivery address. It’s mundane, you do it almost without thinking, but that’s the point. Scrolling down the page I can see more than ten addresses on three continents, each one a way-point in a peripatetic existence. I’ve done nothing to maintain this list. It’s a byproduct of ordering products on the website. Yet nowhere else is this information about my various domiciles chronicled so completely. What previously took armies of people scrupulously spying, logging and filing occurs automatically these days. Systems for gathering and storing information which were once the domain of secretive organisations in oppressive regimes are now hardwired into the daily activities of our digital lives.

Searching your email can produce a similar, often unsettling, feeling. Complex systems for archiving and storing personal information and knowledge, once the preserve of elites, are now available to all. The tools and expertise of an archaeologist or editor has been supplanted, at least to some extent, by a split-second keyword search through your private archive. So much personal history is at our fingertips. An email exchange from 2007 can recall a time in our lives quicker and more accurately than our memory. It can bring us face to face with earlier versions of ourselves, resurrecting façades long since buried. As more people use email and for longer, this effect will be amplified.

Sustaining knowledge across generations and keeping hold of memories seems to be a human impulse. Think of the smudged, thousand-year-old handprints on cave walls in Australia, or lovers’ initials scratched into the bark of a tree. It’s an urge that has gone supernova on the internet, like a thousand Libraries of Alexandria. 250 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day. One hour of video is uploaded to YouTube every second.

Besides the prospective misery for future archaeologists trawling through terabytes of data, this move towards the network as a communal, prosthetic hippocampus is changing our attitudes to memory. On the one hand, it’s making us flippant about preserving experiences and information because responsibility has been delegated out to the network. On the other, it continually reminds us – and other people – about people we have been in the past. Events from years ago threaten to resurface unpredictably in the present. We bear digital stigma. Self-censorship becomes much more likely.

In Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger suggests that devices such as computers and cameras could place expiration dates on digital data – anything from a few seconds to many years – after which the file would automatically be deleted. The idea is to make computers a bit more like us. “Expiration dates,” he says, “Are about asking humans to reflect, if only for a few moments, about how long the information they want to store may remain valuable.” A recent article in The Atlantic described how developers and entrepreneurs are beginning to explore the challenge.

Last Great Thing, a new project by the News.me team, is asking people to share something splendid they have discovered on the web every day for one month. There are no archives or permalinks. The article lasts for a day, then disappears, giving the project a fleetingness that feels unusual in the digital age. Meanwhile, Snapchat is an iPhone picture app that allows you to control the lifespan of the image you send. You can set an expiration date of anywhere from one to ten seconds, after which the image is gone forever. It is one of the first apps which makes a feature of forgetting.

From task reminders to to-do lists to birthday reminder apps, the internet abounds with websites and apps about remembering. But a new approach is starting to emerge: remembering to forget. Despite digital memory being closer than ever to being able to preserve much of the world’s information and experiences, we must acknowledge that we cannot move in that direction and retain our sanity. The digital world must become more human: a place we can change, evolve, forget and forgive.