Friday, 21 September 2012

Technology and memory

I just jumped on the bandwagon and bought an iPhone 4s. One of the reasons I am already enjoying it so much is because the apps are sifting the internet for me - there is a vast array of information out there, and the TED talks app filters out interesting videos, the podcasts app finds me fascinating audio programmes, Pocket allows me to save articles for later, etc... This makes it sound like I was browsing the internet at random before, and now I have been able to cut down as I have quick access to the best bits. Unfortunately the opposite is true - the internet has suddenly been transformed from a sea of junk that I didn't want to wade into too often, to a beautiful selection of interconnected pools that I can't stop paddling in (or, if I were to continue this ridiculous analogy, a selection of seemingly beautiful pools that hide the quicksand of obsession that I am rapidly being sucked into...)

My new relationship with the internet has also highlighted how I relate to more personal information. Will lent me Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. I'm only a third of the way through and it is fascinating. One of the points it makes is that we no longer value the skill of remembering in the same way as even a few decades ago, and we no longer need to remember information because of the new, mostly digital, ways in which we can store it. I am particularly guilty of information hoarding; I use pinterest, tumblr, flickr, facebook and blogger to keep track of ideas, inspiring images, my own photos and artwork, other blogs, etc. Indeed, the purpose of this blog is to remind myself that sometimes I can think creatively, achieve creative things and experience interesting stuff (although I am writing this while sat in the living room in my dressing gown. And I haven't eaten anything yet today and it is nearly 3.30 pm.) 

Add to this all the numerous analogue ways that I hoard - I keep all my letters and ephemera from memorable experiences (tickets/programmes/etc), I keep a sketchbook and a notebook, I have a diary for friend's birthdays and a folder for addresses, I hoard collage materials (in about 12 or so different boxes), I take photos, I keep travel diaries when I go away... the list goes on.

I'm not sure if I'm an extreme example, but I do seem to have some obsession in holding together my identity through tangible records of my experiences. I'd be interested to know how I compare to other people - I suspect it is a universal human trait, even among communities with little material culture. Definitely a thesis in there - how do isolated tribal groups relate to past experiences without tangible records?

Ash once said it would be interesting if all the digital ways of recording memories were suddenly unavailable (e.g. a solar flare) - there would be a big gap in the human timeline. Before digital methods we kept handwritten letters and printed photographs, and locks of hair and baby clothes and diaries. I'd been talking about how we'd found an old 8mm film in my grandfather's things that showed my grandparents life in South Africa, and their emigration to the UK, and how amazing but surreal it had been. It was particularly strange as the other great store of experiences from their time in South Africa, my grandfather's memory, was failing rapidly. Now he has passed away, and those memories are no longer accessible, and that information is forever lost. 

I'm not sure where my thoughts are going with this. I guess I'm interested in how our memories are so fundamental to who we are as people, and yet how fragile they are (our identity and value must surely come from somewhere else). And how new technology has changed how we relate to our own memories and other people's. In Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer writes, 

Like the proverbial tree that falls without anyone hearing it, can an experience that isn't remembered be meaningfully said to have happened at all? Socrates thought the unexamined life was not worth living. How much more so the unremembered life?

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