Memory can be beautiful: the joy of finishing a marathon, a child’s first steps, a first kiss. But it can also be painful: an ugly breakup, the death of a beloved friend. It is vivid, immersive, and deeply personal, But it is also fleeting, inconsistent, and unreliable. It is no surprise that we are always augmenting our memories: painting in caves, writing on paper, taking pictures.
(If you are looking for a concise piece on if Google Glass is good or if big data is an invasion of privacy, look elsewhere. This series is long and meandering. It will, however, strive to be thoughtful.)
Being able to record what is in the moment and in our minds has given us amazing things: Mozart’s concertos, Shakespeare’s collected works, the Internet. But our extended memories also have less desirable consequences: What we do as children is now recorded and can come back to haunt us for the rest of our lives. Cultural feuds that last for generations, long past any reasonable statutes of limitations.
The ability to share our memories and ideas with one another is one of the defining aspects of being human. No other animal has figured it out like we have. Alfred Whitehead wrote that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato. That is exactly what makes our augmented memories so powerful: we can build upon not only our own experience but the experience of others. It draws our communities closer together through shared history, culture, and language1. Our collective memory (for that’s what culture is) is what makes us from individual animals into humans, into people.
But our memory is not perfect. In fact it can be downright stupid. We can easily remember lyrics for decades, but not where we put our house keys a few hours ago. Social memory is no better, stories change with each retelling. History is the longest game of telephone that begun since the dawn of human society and continues until our end. That former representative Anthony Weiner resigned because of a scandal on Twitter, but not that the deficit actually decreased while Obama was in office.
Our memories changes each time we draw them out, sometimes just an inconsequential detail, but others, major aspects. We forget entire episodes while vivid memories of things that never happened can be injected at any time and reinforced as seemingly true as we remember them over the years2. Witnesses often testifying wrongly about what they say during a crime, not because they were malicious, but because their memories are susceptible to change, reshaped over repeated recalls. Innocents convicted wrongly of crimes.
We have only recently started to discover how malleable our memories really are, but it is no surprise that we are always trying to augment our memories: painting in caves, writing on paper, taking pictures, and recording videos. Being able to record what is in the moment and in our minds is amazing. And as technology has improved, our abilities have increased. Popularization of the printing press and the resultant increases in literacy have done more for public well-being than anything else in recent history. And in the next decades, we will be able to do amazing things: we can take massive piles of information and develop abstract ideas through big data (and long data) analysis such as tracking correlations between child metabolism and the grandparents’s nutrition during adolescence3. But there is a dark side as well, as we are able to record more of ourselves and our behaviors, we become easier for others to track and predict. For instance, recent research found that within a dataset of mobility data for 1.5 million users over 14 months, it was possible to identify 95% of users based on only 4 pieces of data4. Other studies have found that data companies could track most Americans by 3 pieces of information: zip code, birthday, and gender5.
As we continue building new tools to augment our memories and help us build new insight out of what we know, we must remember that ultimately, these tools are supposed to help us improve our lives and communities. Treating each other well can not be driven out of the equation, for being social lies at the center of all things human. In the following posts of this series, I’ll explore the cognitive, social, and research benefits and pitfalls of our enhanced memories including how an abundance of data can lead to over reliance and stifle creativity, how open data can be unethical, and when remembering too much can make us callous and unforgiving.