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Digital Memories

March 6, 2012

This past weekend, I observed something very interesting. I sat down next to an older couple who were having dinner. The woman had brought an iPad with her. She kept switching her attention between the iPad and her companion. Curious about this behavior, I decided to eavesdrop on their conversation. It wasn’t long before I realized what the woman was doing.

“You know what was the worst novel I ever had to read?” the woman asked her companion.

“No, what?” the man replied.

“It was a Faulkner novel. I can’t remember the title.”

Absalom! Absalom!?” the man helpfully suggested.

“No, it was one of the really famous ones.”

At this point I nearly interjected, but I was curious what this woman was going to do. Sure enough, she began touching the screen of her iPad.

“I’m going to look this up,” she told the man.

Less than a minute later, she had found what she was looking for. “The Sound and the Fury,” she said, triumphant.

“Of course,” her companion replied.

This anecdote takes us beyond connectivity. Here we find a woman using a tablet to fill in the gaps in her memories. In this particular case, the details were trivial: a movie, the title of a hated book. Nevertheless, the experience suggests a fascinating and very strange application of tablet technology.

Can technology replace our memories? 

The iPad stores all of your memories in this beautiful interface.

It shocks me that I haven’t encountered more people using tablets the way that this woman has. Of course, people, including people my own age, use their smart phones in much the same way that this woman used her tablet. However, what was odd about this experience wasn’t how the woman used the tablet so much as that she was using a tablet. While tablets are very portable, they are not typically used as props (crutches?) during a dinner conversation. Using a tablet makes the experience more communal; it becomes less an experience of simple fact-checking and more an experience of shared recollection.

I recently began writing a story in which the protagonist invents an organization and a program that helps users store their memories in their digital devices. The protagonist himself suffers from memory loss and becomes adept at using his own program. At parties he carries his tablet on his arm like a painter’s color palette, showing off his beautiful memories (complete with pictures, video, and audio assembled by his organization) with pre-rehearsed speeches. With practice, the protagonist seamlessly weaves the device into his own personal narrative. However, it comes at a high price. Soon the protagonist wonders whether he has ceased creating new memories at all. He wonders if the tablet hasn’t already become a crutch, a substitute for his own brain. Without the tablet, he is useless.

That is science fiction, but what I saw this weekend was not. If even one member of my parents’ generation has begun to use her tablet this way, then what does that suggest about my generation? How will we use the tablet and other digital devices when we’ve begun to lose our memories? Will we, like the protagonist in my story, begin to rely more and more on our digital devices to substitute for our ever-failing memories? Will websites like Facebook (with its Timeline function) make it easy to recall long-forgotten memories? More frighteningly, will all of this digital technology change the wiring of our brains? Will our over-reliance on technology prevent us from forming new memories?

That may sound alarmist, but there is a much more powerful and positive application for this technology. I’ve known many people who have suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. How amazing would it be for a person diagnosed with first stage dementia to have all of their memories stored in a digital device? They would collect video, photographs, audio, and text from their life and a company like my protagonist’s would organize the data into a digital file that they could then access through an app on a smart phone or tablet. As the memories fade and their condition worsens, they’d have this program there to remind themselves who they are and what they’ve done in their lives. What could be more powerful than knowing that even as your memories disappear from your mind, they’re always there waiting to be rediscovered by you?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2012 10:05 AM

    This post reminds me of the many conversations that we had in Moz where we intentionally did not use the internet as a resource to recall a trivial fact. We forced ourselves to suffer through hours of agony racking our brains to recall something. As irritating as that can be sometimes, it is generally rewarding to finally come to that realization on your own.

  2. March 6, 2012 7:53 PM

    It’s not only rewarding, it’s also good for you:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/29/health/research/29brai.html

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