Unlimited storage vs. the Human Experience - A reflection on Aaron Harris's post
I can only wait for the final amnesia, the one that can erase an entire life. - Luis Buñuel
I’m going to welcome the new year with a reflection prompted by @harris. In his thought-provoking post, he points out that our effectively-infinite archival of communication diminishes the value of each individual datum of communication (an email, for instance). I believe he touches on a critical point that not only affects our behavior for inbox-cleaning, but also reaches far deeper into our self-perception and notion of time and life events, deeper than we ever bargained for in the Terms of Service.
I was just about to post up some notes on my blog’s recent facelift when I came up on Aaron’s post. I was in the process of searching for my wedding photos for the nth time, and the endless ream of photos already in my computer seemed to mock my attempts at figuring out where I had left them (my current theory is I never copied them from the usb drive and it went missing - oh the irony). It was then that it struck me.
See, not all of the photos were equal. Some were family birthdays, others were of my time in South Korea, while the vast majority were simply moments that I could’ve done without their recording. I was unsure whether they were actually worth keeping - probably not if I had to choose between them and the ones that recorded actual “events” - but I didn’t have to make the choice, because I had the space to keep them. So they stayed. Sure enough, I had made attempts to categorize and group them, but I noticed that some just simply lacked any coherence whatsoever, and iCloud settled the issue for my by using date for grouping. Fair enough.
What happens with everything else, though? Momentous occasions push us to categorize photos into “Albums”, but what about the rest of our digital life? Should we label our important emails as “important”, resting assured that only the really, truly, life-changing important emails will receive the tag - while others receive the “shouldn’t throw away”, “maybe keep around”, “oh no my aunt again”, and sadly enough, “hurtful” tags? Are we not living more of our lives through cloud-backed memory, and trying (and failing) to build data structures to contain our perception of life?
A Perfect Memory
I did not have legit texting capabilities on my cell phone until 2012. Well, my phone did per-se, I just didn’t enable them. I had a stubborn apprehension regarding texts, because I never felt they could truly convey what I wanted to say. Plus it was $5 more on my bill! Preposterous. Therefore, I operated under a framework of:
While this wasn’t earth-shattering in Mexico, where many people at the time didn’t have cell phones yet, here in the US it was almost a showstopper. I would often miss out on class study sessions, parties, and a host of other events where people would just assume that I was able to text back. It never offended me, but I always found it curious how many people felt awkward calling me. It caused enough confusion to the point where I reached a middle ground and activated Google Voice, but even then I still replied through email. Once I started texting, I came to the realization that I actually had a archive of every meaningful (and non-meaningful) interaction I had with people. Sure, this existed with email, but with text it became far more granular. Craigslist bartering, love declarations, study notes - it was all laid bare for the searching. After a while it became unwieldy and I resorted to archiving it all, after which I promptly forgot about it and rarely went back to it.
The position I suddenly found myself in is not a rare one, by any account. One of the effects of living more of our lives through through text, email, and social media is that we are presented with the blessing/curse of having our life affairs committed to perfect, crystal-clear, cloud-backed, unlimited memory 1. It is memory that doesn’t tarnish with time, nor does it have gaps caused by forgetfulness. It is rich, full of audiovisual data and potentially terabytes in size. What I believe we haven’t fully grappled with is being able to access all that memory.
Time Erases Everything, except Persistent Storage
Time eases all things. (lol not anymore) Sophocles, in Oedipus Rex
It used to be that people could live their lives knowing that the “Wheel of Time” would come around and erase both good and bad deeds off the earth. I suppose that was before Yahoo’s virtually unlimited email storage. Now that we have the capability of storing all the minute details of our lives, we must confront the possibility that at some point (gasp) we’ll actually have to go back and look at the mountain of memories for any given reason.
We are going to be one of the first generations to have all their life events digitized, and it opens up a can of worms. You’ll have to make arrangements for your digital effects once your time is up in this world, your digital record of events will likely be up for grabs with the right warrant, and we’ll be facing issues like the one described above. But more importantly, we will have to live with the burden of all our interactions being recorded for posterity.
You just need to scroll back in the email history to those first emails you got when you opened up your account, to get that uncanny feeling of traveling in time. Those mails don’t lie, they don’t forget what was said (or what wasn’t). They may be from long-forgotten friends, perhaps a previous relationship, or even loved ones who passed away. And we’ll have to learn how to live with these digital ghosts, if we’re to continue archiving every event indefinitely.
And here’s the rub: our brain and our memories don’t work the same way our data storage does. Our memories are not well-organized and things tend to be categorized either in POV or episodes. Not only that, but our brains introduce write errors on read. We are used to the way our memory works, and this is what I believe gives our memory that soft “glow” of remembrance. It’s blurry and full of artifacts, like a low-quality image that has been screenshot/pasted one too many times. To some extent, this imperfect memory is almost a feature. Borges certainly thought so. This is one of the reasons why I don’t believe we are well-accustomed to having our email, text, and photo history tell us that the memories we hold dear are not as warm and fuzzy as we remember them to be. And let’s not even get into unpleasant life events that are sure to turn up amongst all our digital possessions.
Is it good or bad? Probably both, just like everything. Regardless, the more we keep in our digital shoebox, the more it’s going to change the way we see ourselves and our world.
Then again, I may be working myself up over nothing. A lazy search on google yielded some pretty darn old books, which appear to last longer than any of our current digital storage media (it should be noted I disagree with the concept of the ‘cloud’ being termed an infinite storage alternative - it can only be as long-lasting as our ability to produce hard drives). ↩