“He could reconstruct all his dreams, all his fancies. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day. He told me: I have more memories in myself alone than all men have had since the world was a world.”
Funes the Memorious – Jorge Luis Borges 1942
I am holding a photograph of a young woman. She is wearing a white dress and gloves and is sitting on the floor in a bare room. To the left of her sits a man, but only his shoulder and part of one hand are visible. The photograph has been torn in two.
The woman in the photograph is my mother. I have only ever known this image with the second person missing, and when I was little I would stare at the empty space beside her as if staring long enough might reveal the mystery person’s identity. I once asked my mother who he was. “Oh, I can’t remember,” she lied.
In 1871 an article appeared in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy – Remarkable cases of memory – describing the case of Daniel McCartney, a 54-year-old blind man living in Ohio. McCartney could remember every single day of his life in extraordinary detail from January 1827, when he was nine years old. When given any date, within the more than four decades that had passed, he was able to confirm the day of the week, describe the weather, recall what he’d eaten, and provide detailed accounts of the day’s events.
It turned out that Mr McCartney had what is now known as Hyperthymesia or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) a condition which gives people the ability to recollect the exact details of their lives from moment to moment. They simply cannot forget.
While the scatter-brained among us may envy this extraordinary ability, many sufferers find the experience overwhelming, their brains cluttered with scenes from the past. As these memories are replayed over and over again, they describe feelings of persistent remorse over mistakes made decades ago. It is possible, it seems, to have too many memories.
I ponder this as I receive a Facebook announcement encouraging me to Remember this day. It looks like its algorithms have put together a smorgasbord of images from a given moment in my past: a friend’s smiley face sits beside an image of a campervan I saw for sale and photos of the mould that I found growing on furniture in my old apartment. Was that really a day worth remembering?
The word memory comes from ‘mem’ – meaning ‘mind’. When we remember, we ‘bring to mind’. It relates to the word mimmer, to dote or dream. In Dutch ‘to remember’ translates as herinneren – literally ‘to make internal again’.
This suggests remembering is a slow, contemplative act, a kind of inner retelling of a bit of our story. Something acts as a trigger – anything from an image, sound or smell to one simple word – setting off a series of associations and suddenly we find ourselves caught in the ‘dream’ of the past. We are invited to ‘dote’ on this moment.
Artificial Intelligence, robots or computers do not actually remember anything: they simply extract and analyse data according to a set of algorithms. When they try to ‘remember’ they get it laughably, and sometimes painfully, wrong.
Yet, every day we collectively upload millions of images to the internet via a multitude of social media platforms. These same platforms encourage us to ‘remember’, ‘save’, and ‘share’: photos, videos, tabs, files, quotes, notes, links, lists. If your digital data isn’t enough to keep you busy, Google’s Photoscan app offers to scan and store your favourite printed pictures to the cloud where it will keep them “safe, searchable and organised”. Still worried you may miss a moment? The Roader Time Machine is a wearable camera that continuously records data, so that when you press the button you get the 10 seconds prior to the event thrown in as well.
Rest assured: Everything is saved. Nothing is missed. Everything is remembered. Nothing is ever forgotten.
This persistent accumulation of data means we are swiftly approaching a moment when we could very possibly ‘travel back in time’ and ‘remember this day’, or any day, in minute detail. As we succumb to the demands of the digital age for increasing self-revelation we are becoming more and more our own and each other’s paparazzi, pointing our cameras at situations and places previously deemed intimate and private. Each living in our personal version of the Truman show, we, and others, could press the rewind button and watch an episode of our lives again. And again.
However, a world of constant remembering has its own dangers: our mistakes are not erased by the kind passing of time, nor are our wounds allowed to heal. Unlike my mother who could make a man (or least his image and its associations) ‘disappear’ with a careful tear, we must now accept that our past is also our present and our future. The ex-partner’s social media feed, the stupid tweet you should never have posted, that unfortunate picture someone shared on Instagram, the misguided (and presumably private) sexting you partook in when you were 14 – all these may yet come to haunt you. Like Funes the Memorious you may find your mind becoming ‘like a garbage disposal.’
Nicholas Carr in his 2010 book The Shallows points out that “Every technology is an expression of human will. Through our tools we seek to expand our power and control over our circumstances – over nature, over time and distance, over one another. “
What then might we be seeking to control with our self-inflicted hyperthymesia?
Stephen Jenkinson, founder of the Orphan Wisdom school, has sat at the deathbeds of well over 1000 people through his work in palliative care. “Most dying people aren’t really afraid of dying.’ he says, “They are […] afraid of disappearing without a trace. […] They are afraid of us being able to proceed, with some period of adjustment, as if they’d never been, something we usually call ‘getting on with our lives’.” In other words: they, we, are afraid of being forgotten.
Is this why we save and share so feverishly? Are we clinging to a mountain of data in an attempt to affirm, and continue, our very existence? Rather than saying ‘look at me’ are we actually calling out ‘please don’t forget’? Perhaps what we long for most is some assurance that we matter enough to be truly remembered. For someone who cares to ‘hold us’ in their memory, to make our story internal again, when we are not, or no longer, here.
Yet it is exactly our incessant uploading and sharing that run the risk of condemning us to oblivion. We mistake storage for preservation. Algorithms for recollection. Data for story. We fail to see that human hearts and minds do not function like computers and incorrectly treat forgetting as a curse, overlooking its vital importance to functioning human memory.
Healthy forgetting (that is forgetting that is not inflicted through brain damage or a degenerative disease) is an ally to our remembering. It allows us to distinguish between information that helps us function and stuff that is superfluous or unmanageable in its content. UCSC psychology professor Ben C Storm in an interview with Science Daily tells us that “People who are good at forgetting information they don’t need are also good at problem solving and at remembering something when they’re being distracted with other information. This shows that forgetting plays an important role in problem solving and memory. (…) We need to be able to update our memory so we can remember and think about the things that are currently relevant.”
In order to remember the things that matter it is essential to forget. And our forgetting is another person’s being forgotten and their forgetting is ours. Not everything can and must be saved.
This may be hard to accept when we have so much ‘memory’ at our fingertips, literally. With the click of a button we save our data to the so-called cloud, overlooking that the cloud is not the endless, weightless space its name suggests, but a large number of physical data centres gobbling up land and energy and producing ever larger amounts of CO2 as our hunger for storage grows. We are using up our planet’s precious resources to store countless images that we are unlikely to ever have the time, or interest, to look at again.
For an art piece called “24 Hrs of Photos” Dutch artist Erik Kessels downloaded every photograph uploaded to Flickr in the course of a single day, about a million in all. He printed a fraction of them, around 350.000 which he piled up in wavelike heaps in a gallery. Asked to explain the project, Kessels said: “I visualize the feeling of drowning in representations of other people’s experiences.”
Our digital baggage weighs down our psyches as well as our planet. As we gradually forfeit our right to a private existence we lose the privilege of being the editors of our own lives and deciding which bits of our story are worth retelling and worth remembering and by whom. As we voluntarily sign over to billions of anonymous internet users the option to duplicate, alter, store and share our personal images we risk undermining possibilities we once took for granted: the option to leave the past behind, the ability to forgive ourselves and others for any misdemeanours, the chance to let go and let things be.
Remembering and forgetting, growth and decay, life and death – each is a necessary counterpart to the other. Our culture continuously attempts to break free from this cycle of life and death: first by developing materials that appear almost immortal in their longevity and now with the seemingly endless immateriality of the online world. Both cause havoc with the earth’s, and our, ecology. Yet the degradation and decay of our physical bodies is inevitable. All bodies of all species on this earth will one day disappear, and each one of us must make the most of the short and unknown time we are allocated. Trying to capture every little detail about our existence in bits and bytes is both futile and a disservice to the richness of a life bound by time and matter.
In order to remain aware of and celebrate what we truly value, we must let some things – perhaps most things – die and be lost. We must dedicate time and space to preserve real treasures rather than hoarding ‘mental junk’. In turn, we must accept that some people will decide to ‘tear us’ from their lives. To be forgotten by most, but truly remembered by a precious few is surely more desirable than ending up lost in a forest of irrelevant data, somewhere amidst the kittens and cappuccinos.
What happens in an internet minute:
Photo from Erik Kessels’ “24 Hrs of Photos”