Our Memory (And Selves) Will Belong To The Cloud


In a review of Permanent Present Tense by Suzanne Corkin, Steven Shapin reflects on the life of Corkin’s famous patient, Henry Molaison, whose ability to form new memories was destroyed by a brain operation when he was 27. How Molaison’s sense of memory relates to our own:

In everyday life, we don’t much care whether what we remember is contained between our ears or resides on a piece of paper. We rely on our partners, colleagues, and friends to remind us of obligations; we stick Post-its on computers and fridge doors to cue us to buy milk or have the car serviced; our cell phones ping to announce coming appointments and remember all our phone numbers for us. Increasingly, our memories are distributed across a landscape populated by things and other people, and, in that respect, it’s possible to see Molaison as standing merely at a pathological extreme of memory’s normalcy: after the operation, all of Molaison’s declarative memory lived outside his own body, while only some of ours does.

Shapin imagines a future in which “technology will banish forgetting”:

The Quantified Self movement encourages everyone to follow Silicon Valley utopians in forming a personal digital register of every item of food consumed and every measurable bodily state. A camera worn on the neck of a “lifelogger” records everything seen, and a digital recorder captures everything heard. It’s all there—nothing filtered, nothing lost, nothing distorted by the messiness of internal memory. Wearable computers like Google Glass hold out the promise of still more powerful modes of self-archiving. We shall be as gods, and about ourselves we shall know all things. Technology will banish forgetting, and the stores of undeformed memory will live forever in the cloud, retrievable at will. The name for our remaining problems will be “search”: all we’ll have to do is remember what we’re looking for, master a few tricks for finding it, and, finally, offload the initiation of search onto external prompts that will remind us to remember.

Last Saturday I spent a relatively harmless and hugely enjoyable few hours with some friends and the conversation got a little 3 am college dormy. My friend elaborated an epiphany about eternity.

As the years go by, and our lives are digitally recorded in more and more ways, he argued, there will be digital versions of ourselves – from selfies to web trails, from precise consumer preferences to social networks, from thousands of emails and texts to videos and Facebook likes – that will have more data embedded in them than even the most industrious biographer could have used on the most famous person in the past. We will also come, inevitably, to refer to these digital summaries of ourselves, to remind us of our past, to get digital proof of previous loves or ideas or events or friends. We will therefore need to remember less and less, even as the imprint we make on the world becomes more and more indelible and eternal. We can just look them up, the way we reach for Google when we cannot remember the answer to a trivia question or need to resolve an empirical debate.

Writing a blog every day for thirteen years and counting brings that home rather firmly. So many feelings, thoughts, asides, facts, wishes, errors, home-runs, and massive fails are all there for anyone to see and for me to flinch from. But just as surely, I do not need to remember much of my life any more. It is remembered for me and exists in something we call the cloud. The cloud is eternal. It reaches into the depths of the past and makes it instantly accessible to the present and to any non-apocalyptic future.

The concept of a personal trail that makes a life eternal isn’t new, of course. I think of Emily Dickinson’s vast trove of scribbles or Pascal’s unfinished scraps of paper we now know as the Pensees. But in the past, only a few managed to achieve anything like the record we are currently assembling of our own lives every day. For most, there was the Parish register or, if you were really lucky, a mention in government or church records. A gravestone here; a family genealogist there. Far, far more human beings ended their lives with no lasting memory of them remaining among those still living. We were almost all unknown soldiers once.

Now, we are all so known. And the key aspect of the cloud, it seems to me, is not just its powerful storage, but its instant accessibility to anyone with an Internet connection. Just like the seventeenth century poems we publish afresh here on the Dish alongside the written-a-few-minutes-ago blog-posts, the old and the new exist as equals, because they will increasingly become equally available to us. And so time itself disappears as an experience online. It truly is an eternal now, that connects past and future to a perpetual present.

And in some ways, our personal digital records are very much the summation of ourselves. Not our physical, intimate, human selves – the selves we eat with and run with and fall in love with – but our abstracted selves, the conglomeration of every detail, feeling, idea, thought, impulse, and friend that tells the story of me. Long after I am dead, will that not be the most accessible incarnation of me – alongside all the published words I have written in part to live past my physical expiration date? Will I not continue to exist in some form that is available to all of humankind for ever?

Ambitious types in the past performed all sorts of amazing and horrifying things to become immortal, to leave a legacy, to be remembered by history. But increasingly, that form of immortality is available to to more and more people in principle. In the future the scale of the recording – the Big Data Of Humanity – will only increase and deepen. In practice, of course, our lives will exist only in so far as others care to find us. And that is how it has always been. But now, more and more of us will never fully die. We will always be available for rebooting.

Is it a purely etymological accident that we call this collective memory a cloud?

Was it also purely by accident that for aeons, humankind looked up past the clouds to see Heaven?