Portable memories

We used to store our memories in paper diaries, and boxes and albums of photographs. Now we can store them on line, and contribute to a bigger pool of social memories. We can see other people’s memories, and add our own. You can also attach memories to objects via barcodes, QR codes and RFID tags. Scan a barcode attached to a display item in a museum and you can see, hear or read what others remember about it.  Smartphones and their instant access to the Internet amplify this capability. Memories are attachable, detachable and portable. According to Mayer-Schonberger in a book entitled Delete, “externalizing memory has made it possible for us to remember even through generations and across time.” Or so it seems.

Glidded surface behind glassThe linking of the human capability to remember, and the electro-mechanical operations of storing and porting data, is seductive, and we take for granted that information is stored in computer memory.

I found Israel Rosenfield’s book The Invention of Memory a very helpful antidote to the various “myths” of memory as storage. We think that

we can accurately remember people, places, and things because images of them have been imprinted and permanently stored in our brains; and that, though we may not be conscious of them, these images are the basis of recognition and hence of thought and action. p.3

Certainly, when I recall a telephone number or try to remember someone’s name it seems like I’m digging up an item of information from a file store. But one of the keys to understanding memory is context.

Note that we generally recall names and telephone numbers in a particular context; each of our recollections is different, just as we use the same word in different sentences. p.163

The use of mnemonics, associations that trigger recollections, deployed deliberately or unconsciously, provides evidence of the importance of context in memory — when my PIN comes to mind as I approach an ATM. It’s as if the recollection is a dynamic jigsaw that requires components from the environment to complete itself.

We are also better at recognizing than recollecting (p.162). A group can often recall information better than an individual thinking in isolation. Someone may present a fragment of a recollection that awakens in others a recognition that is rapidly confirmed or dismissed. Others fill in the details. The group moves towards a memory by consensual means. Memory has this collective character even when I’m apparently thinking alone.

For the early advocate of “collective memory” Maurice Halbwachs (1877-1945), “The individual calls recollections to mind by relying on the frameworks of social memory.” (p.182)

Halbwachs speculated on the hypothetical possibility of an individual existing without being in society. Without the structuring that derives from social relationships and language our recollections would have the character of dreams: unrelated and incoherent. After all, it’s really only when asleep that you are the supposedly unique individual, away from the support of society. (Somnio ergo sum.)

If the process of remembering depends on context, environment and sociability then we cannot readily expect online social media to provide anything other than a stimulus to recollection and remembering, or an inadvertent trace from which memories get constructed by people in society. Texts, documents, sounds and pictures are not the memories. We don’t code memories into these media, but society constructs its content and media to trigger them. A cherished photograph of a departed friend is not the memory, but it prompts a recollection within me.

If human society were obliterated then there would be no memories, just a lot of documents (much in digital format), waiting to be ignored or interpreted by a hypothetical alien species, with their own memories (if they have them).

At the most, electronic devices are memory triggers, or traces, not memory stores. Someone also said they are a means of forgetting, but I can’t recall who just at the moment.


  • Halbwachs, Maurice. 1992. On Collective Memory. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Mayer-Schonberger, Viktor. 2009. Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Rosenfield, Israel. 1988. The Invention of Memory: A New View of the Brain. New York: Basic Books.
  • Yates, Frances A. 1966. The Art of Memory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

On the Internet of Things see work by Chris Speed and colleagues.


  1. Ameko says:

    I definitely agree that the electronic devices are more a trigger of memories than a memory store—computer crashes and online data can be lost anytime, but memories would not dissapear all of a sudden, they fades slowly. However, online media still plays a very important role as a memory trigger. I used to write some diaries on my online space. As time passes,the sentences can still bring me back to the long frogotten context again. Besides, it’s more appropriate to describe the social media as a “collective thoughts”for it does not only contribute to “a bigger pool of social memories”, but also help collect and cohesion the strenghth of public opinions. This year in China a 20-year old girl named Guo Meimei uploaded some pictures of her luxurious goods:branded bags, Maserati supercar to Sina Weibo—the current hottest social media website in China. The girl didn’t expect these pictures will make her become the hottest topic in China’s internet society. Netizens doubted the unmatched luxurious life with her age. The uproar intensified when they found out that her verified identity on Sina Weibo is “the manager of Red Cross Society of China”, which put both the girl and the society under the spotlight. People doubted the corruption within the Red Cross Society of China and requested for carrying out an investigation on this event. They contributed opinions and ideas not only on Weibo, but also on the other media societies. The government had to intervened to quell the public opinion. Online media does not merely contribute to recollecting, but has the ability to gather thoughts and opinions as well. The wide spread use of smartphones and other mobile communication terminals also help the users to upload their ideas in anytime and anyplace.

  2. DDM-Tana says:

    Or course, I agree with the view of electronic devices’ being memory triggers, mainly because those devices just can store and collect something into “digital format”, such as texts, images, or videos. Those digital formats only can stimulate our memories, let us recollect something. However, as if those digital devices were broken, or applications breakdown, everything could lose in a second. By contrast, our memories cannot disappear in a flash; only fade as time going by. Besides, although our memories accidently disappeared one day, it is still possible to awake those lost memories. This so differ from digital devices. But, we have to admit that human are becoming lazy to bear something in mind. For instance, owing to the multifunctional mobile phones, people barely remember several telephone numbers of minorities. Furthermore, the internet can store a great deal of information, which leads to decline of the faculty of memory. That is to say, with the multiple store space, people are accustomed to searching information by “search engine”, which could make us rely on the internet and become stupid. According to the research by Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow, the Google engine is changing the way of remembering. She said: “Our brains rely on the Internet for memory in much the same way they rely on the memory of a friend, family member or co-worker. We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found.” In her view, because the internet is the most convenient way to collect the “Transactive Memory”, people choose to surf the internet to get information rather than other social groups or teams. As a result, human prefer to search the information, not to recall the information in memory. Thus, it is the time to think about this problem, and which way is the best way to cultivate our capacity of memory. This is the video of the interview of Betsy Sparrow.

    1. Just caught up with this comment. Very helpful, and useful video. I’ll use it. Thanks

  3. Xinxin Yuan says:

    Amazing! Memory is an intangible and mystical thing in my mind. Though there is no identification of “memory”, this article makes me realize memory is not a simple thing independently. I do not know whether my understanding is right or not. I want to say, memory lives depend on relationships. The name, the number even the events we remember do not exist lonely. They are linked with the context and even the emotion, at least with something particular in this context. So that people can recall the memories with the help of the same or similar context. Memories are recalled not recollection. In my own understandings, this is still because memory is not independent objects, It can be stored and collected but it also need to be reformed in the same context or the same emotion. So we call this process is “recall” not “recollection”. In today’s world, technology can help us do many things even the ones we cannot do by ourselves, electronic devices can help us count and analyze. While for something complex and emotive, “electronic and technologic devices are only the triggers.”

  4. Zhe Wang says:

    In my opinion, electronic devices are not only our memory triggers, but also a more reliable, accurate way to store our memory. Memories relied mostly on our mood, that means, memories tend to be subjective and that is why we need digital terminal to help us remember things. Digital data never lies regardless the passage of time. With time went by, memories will be obliterated, even become false because it is quite easy for us to recall “wrong memories” when remembering things. Therefore, electronic deceives help us a lot when we want to “find” our memories, not just trigger them.

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