THE EBB OF MEMORY

In just a few years, we’ll see the first generation of adults whose every breath has been drawn on the grid. A generation for whom every key moment (e.g., birth) has been documented and distributed globally. Not just the key moments, of course, but also the most banal: eating pasta, missing the train, and having a bad day at the office. Ski trips and puppies.

These trips and puppies are not simply happening, they are becoming data, building up the global database of distributed memories. They are networked digital photos – 3 billion on Flickr, 10 billion on Facebook. They were blog posts, and now they are tweets, too (a billion in 18 months). They are Facebook posts, Dopplr journals, Last.FM updates.

Further, more and more of these traces we produce will be passive or semi-passive. Consider Loopt, which allows us to track ourselves, our friends through GPS. Consider voicemail transcription bots that transcribe the voice messages we leave into searchable text in email boxes on into eternity. The next song you listen to will likely be stored in a database record somewhere. Next time you take a phonecam photo, it may well have the event’s latitude and longitude baked into the photo’s metadata.

The sharp upswing in all of this record-keeping – both active and passive – are redefining one of the core elements of what it means to be human, namely to remember. We are moving towards a culture that has outsourced this essential quality of existence to machines, to a vast and distributed prosthesis. This infrastructure exists right now, but very soon we’ll be living with the first adult generation whose entire lives are embedded in it.

In 1992, the artist Thomas Bayrle wrote that the great mistakes of the future would be that as everything became digital, we would confusememory with storage. What’s important about genuine memory and how it differs from digital storage is that human memory is imperfect, fallible, and malleable. It disappears over time in a rehearsal and echo of mortality; our abilities to remember, distort and forget are what make us who we are.

We have built the infrastructure that makes it impossible to forget. As it hardens and seeps into every element of daily life, it will make it impossible to remember. Changing what it means to remember changes what it means to be.

There are a few people with who already have perfect episodic memory, total recall, neurological edge cases. They are harbingers of the culture to come.  One of them, Jill Price, was profiled in Der Spiegel:

"In addition to good memories, every angry word, every mistake, every disappointment, every shock and every moment of pain goes unforgotten. Time heals no wounds for Price. 'I don't look back at the past with any distance. It's more like experiencing everything over and over again, and those memories trigger exactly the same emotions in me. It's like an endless, chaotic film that can completely overpower me. And there's no stop button.'"

This also describes the life of Steve Mann, passively recording his life through wearable computers for many years. This is an unlikely future scenario, but like any caricature, it is based on human features that will be increasingly recognizable. The processing, recording and broadcasting prefigured in Mann’s work will be embedded in everyday actions like the twittering, phonecam shots and GPS traces we broadcast now. All of them entering into an outboard memory that is accessible (and searchable) everywhere we go.

Today is New Year’s Eve. I read today (on Twitter) that three friends, independent of each other, were looking back at Flickr to recall what they were doing a year ago. I would like to start the New Year being able to remember 2008, but also to forget it.

For the next generation, it will be impossible to forget it, and harder to remember. What will change everything is our ability to remember what everything is. Was. And wasn’t.