It’s a lovely thing to have. But scrolling through these messages also prompts an uneasy feeling in my chest, because I know why I’ve kept them there: without referring to them, I have no idea of the names or the birthdays of most of my close friends’ firstborn children. I’ve replied to these texts, sometimes sent a card or gift as well, and then put the entire event out of mind. Despite the supplementary blogs, Facebook photos and network updates, these new arrivals seem barely to have impinged on my consciousness.
I am able to “remember” these children’s names in the same sense that I “know” the phone numbers on my phone: the information is in my possession. It makes perfect sense for me to keep records like this, on a device that is almost always switched on in my pocket. Yet simply to speak of this as “memory” risks a fundamental misunderstanding of what memories can signify to me as a human being – and of those aspects of the self, and of remembering, that cannot be outsourced to even the most sophisticated of devices.
Even the most comprehensive database lacks, for example, something that every human on earth takes for granted: a story. We are the products of our nature, but also of the unique experiences that reshape us throughout our lives. While we may identify the parts of our brain responsible for long- and short-term memories, there is no machine-simple memory module within us.
Indeed, there is no such thing as a human memory that exists outside of thought, feeling and selfhood. What we experience, do and learn becomes a part of us. We internalize events, people and ideas; we reflect, change our minds and misremember, possessing our pasts as a continuing part of our present. We cannot outsource our true memories any more than we can outsource our feelings or beliefs – nor can we separate them from “us”.
As the author Nicholas Carr puts it in his 2010 book The Shallows, “what gives real memory its richness and its character, not to mention its mystery and fragility, is its contingency. It exists in time, changing as the body changes . . . when we start using the web as a substitute for personal memory, bypassing the inner processes of consolidation, we risk emptying our minds of their riches.”
Each computer and device may be unique, and have a unique history, but it is not this uniqueness that makes them what they are. Often, they function despite their histories, as anyone familiar with the symptoms of operating-system slowdown will know. For a machine, the past is a clogging burden. Classifying information neatly and keeping the operational sector clean is best. It’s a fine lesson for the realm of work and productivity – but the exact inverse of what it takes to develop a well-stocked human mind.