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.
The 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.