The Mechanization of Memory

As we are swallowed by the technology we create, we are losing our emotional tether to history as human memory is mechanized into the ether of our invisible material world.


As we age, our ability to remember becomes stronger and then weaker.

To Live is to Remember” is the hallmark of our humanity, but we are now tumbling down the divide of mechanisms instead of memories?

What happens when we acquiesce our memory to non-malleable machines instead of the temporary human being?

Once, we drew images on cave walls to preserve the memory of our eyes.  Then we created film and gave over our internals to celluloid negatives.  Now we have total mechanization of our vision with Flickr and Picasa and other virtual storage bins that more quickly become shared, fake, remembrances with the rest of the world instead of private touchstones for a moment in time.

Once, we placed pen on paper and released our memories into inky fiber to seal the passion of our hearts.  Then the typewriter removed the human touch.  Now our writing exists only on mechanized, temporary, screens in fleeting clouds as Docs in the ether of the Net.  A manuscript burns once; a document lives a thousand times lost.

Once, we walked across a dirt field to visit our neighbors to bond the immediate now to the probable future.  Then we leapt on a horse to visit, then we stepped on a streetcar, then we rode a steam train and then we flew in an airplane to stay in touch with those around us.  Now we visit through mechanized email, iChats, and text messages.  Twitter replaced the telephone call.

Are we to mourn the loss of human memory as it becomes sifted, broken down, indexed, propagated, advertised, fed and minced for the profit of the Internet?

Do we want all our internal thoughts stored beyond us in the computing cloudwafting on unprotected barges in polluted oceans — sitting and waiting for extortion by pirates and for destruction by terrorists that want to remove all evidence of our collected memories from our machines?

Are memories made more brittle with preservation beyond the mind — or are our experiences made more elastic with their stretching into bits and bytes as they float along the unprotected abyss?

40 comments

  • My father has never owned a mobile phone and sees no need to own one. He asked Comcast to take call waiting off the phone because he didn’t want it. He talks to his friends on his time and visits with friends in person. I guess he’s a mechanical maverick because he bucks the system.

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  • Gordon!
    Does your father use email? When he goes on vacation, does he take photographs or does he just choose to “remember” what he sees?
    Since you’re an active Twitterer — can you please explain the value and the merit of the service? Do you use it as a diary? A soap box? A way to locate yourself in time and space throughout the day?

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  • My father loves the e-mail. He also uses Skype to communicate with people with whom normal phone calls would be prohibitively costly. I will ask him about taking photos but as far as I know usually other people take photos and he just gets links to photo albums later.
    The chief reason I use twitter as much as I do is because I have it as a Blackberry application. Sometimes, say, I will see something very odd or unusual – like a woman wearing a garbage bag as a caftan. I have to make a note of that and I love the instant feedback. When I made the tweet the other day about applying to be a production assistant to the Nancy Grace show, the shock people had was reflected immediately. I was able to explain just as quickly. :)

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  • Gordon —
    Do people ever complain to your father that they cannot hear him on Skype? Does he tell the people he’s calling on Skype that he’s using Skype? Or does he pretend he’s making a phone call from a traditional line?
    If you didn’t have Twitter on your Blackberry, would you “save up” your immediate thoughts and then later type them into your computer for Twittering or not?
    So people directly reply to your Twitter stream? It’s like having a public chat? I, too, was repulsed by your Nancy Grace wannabeeism. Ew! She would eat you alive. You’d be the third twin in her belly.
    Explain these “Action Streams” to me… they’re both from Six Apart/Movable Type guys…
    The first one I sort of understand. The “What I’m doing now” is embedded in other content so it seems more natural:
    http://www.majordojo.com/
    I don’t get why that information is important to share…
    …but I am certainly awed and confused by this “Next Wave” of blogging that seems to consist merely of the contents of one’s day:
    http://www.davidrecordon.com/
    I’m not getting it — what’s the charm of having a blow-by-blow history of the minutiae of your day published on the web?

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  • If you only care about yourself then letting your memories die with you is fine. If you want to share what you learned why not let copies of it sit on a barge in the middle of the ocean?

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  • Okay, Anne, if your memories no longer belong to you because they now belong to the greatness of the world — why bother locally remembering anything? Let Google moderate your memory. There’s no need for the privacy of moments any more.

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  • That’s what I’m saying. Technology as you say takes care of it for us. We just experience. Doodads do the recording. We’re a surveillance nation. You know that.

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  • Yes, we live in the Panopticon and yes you know I know that — but I don’t know how easily we can cleave memory from experience. If we don’t remember our own personal deeds we cannot evolve by learning from them. If every experience I have belongs to everyone else as shared memory then where’s the individual insight in that equation?

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  • There is no individual. There is only us, we, them and ours. Communities share everything. That includes the loss of private thought.

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  • It’s interesting, Anne, that our memories no longer belong to us, yet we work and earn as separate entities. I wonder if we’ll ever be absolved of our national requirement to be licensed as individuals and pay taxes apart from each other and earn grades and promotions on our own.

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  • Hi David,
    Very interesting article. The act of committing memories and personal experiences into something more permanent than any one fleeting human life is probably one of the cornerstones of civilization. But, on a personal level, does the memory itself – or its significance – alter within the person once it has been expressed?

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  • I think memories fade once they no longer exist only in the mind, Dananjay. There’s an old saying that if you want to remember something — an appointment or a date or a birthday — never write it down or you’ll forget because your mind “releases” that information from memory because it no longer needs to be remembered because you’ve “remembered” it elsewhere.

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  • True, David. It’s like how we don’t really remember phone numbers anymore! But then again, by allowing us to release such bits of information, doesn’t the same technology then let us remember other things?

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  • It’s funny, Dananjay, that many of our readers here remember my articles better than I recall writing them! How is that possible? Do our minds have only so much empty space for the storage of miniscule things, or do we virtually expand out memories “in the cloud” by using pictures and stories and computer data storage to hold what we know and might want to recall later?
    This conversation reminds me of the PhotoShop “Scratch Disk” — you can order second, third and fourth drives that PhotoShop can use to run faster as “virtual memory.” If, however, those drives are missing, or if PhotoShop can’t find them, everything begins to slow to a crawl as PhotoShop has to fall back and use the local install disk to access more “virtual memory.”
    I wonder if our minds manage memories the same way? Sure, we can remember everything we want to remember with a great effort without placing it outside ourselves… but at what cost? Does our thought process slow down like PhotoShop? Are we unable to add more learning experiences only until the current memories are purged or archived and “forgotten” for later use?

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  • I’m not sure if the PhotoShop Scratch Disk is an adequate analogy, David! But it does seem plausible.
    Sometimes I’ll look at some old notes or files on the computer and wonder if i’d really written it. it’s almost like the neurons that formed those thoughts have been repurposed for other thoughts!

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  • Actually the way that my father uses Skype, he only talks with people who also have Skype so it all works out.
    All twitter entries that begin @*namehere* are parts of a dialogue. It’s pretty simple, actually. When I’m on the phone I choose the option “get friend timeline” and I see what all my twitter friends have written lately. I can also choose “get replies” and it parses anything with @gordond to that stream.
    I don’t get action streams. I write only when I find something important. Pre-twitter, I would just use livejournal to enter things that seemed important but then days later I would realize I forgot something amusing that happened. Twitter via livejournal helps that.
    Sorry if I was shocking with the nancy grace – but I was just applying to anything that I could find online and continue to do so. I guess you could say I really am hungry for work. :)

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  • It is interesting, Dananjay, how quickly our minds disassociate us from what we created. I wonder if it’s a purge response to defend the truly important tasks of the mind like involuntary blinking and fast muscle twitch coordination?

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  • Thanks for the fine Twitter explanation, Gordon! I appreciate understanding how these new social phenomenons work. I like the idea of this sort of moment-to-moment tracking of what we do all day long… I’m just not sure of the intrinsic value in publishing it for the world to remember for you… because it could so easily be used against you…
    Speaking of values… since you’re conditioning yours for the lowering in a job search… SMILE!… don’t forget to apply to the Palin/McCain campaign as a canvasser, Bill O’Reilly is looking for a shoeshine boy, and GWBush needs more bodies to send over to Iraq… keep us updated!

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  • I think those functions are part of the brain stem’s remit, David!
    I suppose that the perspective is what makes rewriting effective.

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  • Do we ever really want to know how the brain operates? I am somehow transfixed by the idea that, one day, we will be able to press a pre-programmed button to create virtual sensation, touches, smells and pleasures all by rewiring our brains with actual wiring! We’re already doing that to monitor aneurysm areas and to fight Parkinson’s and Tourette’s Syndrome and Epileptic seizures right inside the brain. I’m sure we’ll even be able to download the “Twitter Stream of the Day” and relive Gordon’s job searches in a five minute stream of text updates and images captured from his eyes.

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  • Naturally there are certain lines I won’t cross. I can’t help but be fascinated by a source of news which provides a point of view of which I am against. I don’t like to just hear everyone that agrees with me. I like reading news that bothers me sometimes :)

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  • Good luck, Gordon! We hope you find joy in your antithetical misery for profit! SMILE!

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  • http://openid.aol.com/kspoile82

    poetry..

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  • Can you expand on that poetry idea a bit more, ks?

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  • http://openid.aol.com/kspoile82

    The article (to my own cognition) speaks to the proliferation of dehumanization within our own physical existences.
    As interconnectivity and networks get faster and easier to utilize, we find ourselves becoming more and more withdrawn from one another. When the entire world is at your fingertips, how much of it can you make your own? With so much information at your disposal, how are you able to truly digest and personalize that which you see?
    It’s a sensory overload backed by exabytes of storage space.
    Perhaps, the more we know, the less we feel. Are we machines forever weighed by our processing and storage capabilities? Or are we simply too tied to machines to know what is Us, and who We should be?

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  • ks —
    We may be unable to feel in the whir of harddrives and we’re being blinded by our own ambition to own and store everything that is knowable. Our cellphones are eating the brains of our children and our WiFi streams are deafening us. Perhaps we are evolving into the machines we built to serve us.

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    Hi David! Very interesting article!
    In my case, I remember what I like…
    I remember something which I read and liked, I remember a song that I liked and so on…
    In India, all the exams are closed book and closed notes – while writing in the exam I used to close my eyes and could recall the answers the way I read it in the notes/books like a photograph – only when I liked the subject though!

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  • I enjoy how even memory is in the “now.” We are tricked by our minds that our experiences happened on a timeline in the past when they, too, actually appeared in the “now” at the time of their creation and when we “remember” them we are recalling the now moment into the now. Tomorrow becomes “now.” Our mind’s trick is to always externalize the now even as we bring up experiences to live again in the now.

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    Wow!
    No wonder I was lost in the “now” last night, but I agree with you this morning.
    It’s always “now”, depending how we see it!

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  • Finding the now can be hard, Katha. I find it best in the inhalation of the breath.

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    Right, I agree.

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  • I’m remembering this “now” for a later “now,” Katha! SMILE!

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  • Wow. You know, all of that still exists. I personally do not use any internet photo storage, but I do save my pictures onto an external hard drive. My older pictures have begun to fade and I want to be able to share them with my children.
    I also perfer to write over type, I find that I cannot write poetry on a computer, but on paper, it flows. I do not IM and rarely send emails. Really, I’d rather talk to a person.
    So you see, all of those forms are still practiced. And in case your wondering, I’m not an old fogie stuck in my ways. I’m 24.

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  • Hi Kelly —
    Why do you think you write better on paper than with a computer?

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