The Affair to Remember

According to Oscar Wilde, “Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.” Kevin Nguyen wonders if this applies to digital memories.

Illustration by Yael Levy

If you played as many videogames as I did in middle school, you may recall Psycho Mantis, a very clever, very meta boss fight in Metal Gear Solid. (You could only beat him by plugging your controller into the Player 2 slot to prevent him from predicting your moves.) But the part I recall best is the cutscene leading up to the fight: Psycho Mantis would “read your past” by telling you about your gaming habits. He would tell you if you had set off too many alarms, compliment you if you were a stealthy player, even remark if you had played other games by the same developer.

“You have saved often,” he told me. “You are a prudent person.”

This judgment affected my entire life.

I’ve spent a lot of my life staring at a word processor, and I’ve developed a habit of quick-saving every time I write a sentence. My fingers are compulsively mapped to Command+S. There I go: I just did it. And again. And again.

Similarly, I probably take backing up my computer too seriously. I use two different cloud-based services to save my important files, while an external hard drive backs up my entire computer weekly. Triple redundancy means that both services would have to crash and my external would have to explode before I lost my files — and of course, something awful would have to happen to my MacBook first.

Which is interesting, because if I’m honest with myself, there’s nothing on my computer I couldn’t live without. The bulk of my files — applications, music, pirated movies, etc. — I could easily replace. It would be annoying to lose the files that I’m currently working on, but it just amounts to a few hours of lost progress.

But what about the personal files, the things of sentimental value? I have thousands of photographs dating back to high school, and saved school work and other documents dating back even further than that — files that I’m not particularly attached to. There’s a comfort in knowing that if I wanted to revisit short stories and old photos, I could. But the truth is that I never will. My hard drive is full of memories that will never be forgotten, but never quite remembered.

If you can capture certain memories with digital storage, why not capture them all? That’s more or less the premise behind lifelogging, a movement testing the waters of “surrogate memory” for human beings. 76-year-old technologist Gordon Bell, a well-known ambassador of lifelogging, walks around with a small digital camera, called a SenseCam, hanging from his neck at all times, taping everything he sees; a digital recorder captures everything he hears; every phone call he receives is archived, every piece of paper read scanned and saved. He even has an assistant that helps him backfile his life by scanning every document he’s accumulated since the 1950s.

I learned about Gordon Bell from a chapter in Joshua Foer’s new book Walking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. At one point, Foer talks to Bell about lifelogging as both a natural and unnatural advancement in human memory.

Photographs, videos, and digital recordings are, like books, prosthetics for our memories — chapters in the long journey that began when the Egyptian god Theuth came to King Thamus and offered him the gift of writing as a “recipe for both memory and wisdom.” Lifelogging is the logical next step. Maybe even the logical final step, a kind of reductio ad absurdum of cultural transformation that has been slowly unfolding for millenia… If we’re bound to have computers that never forget, why bother having brains that remember?

Lifelogging may take things to an obsessive extreme, but it’s not much of a leap to consider the files on our computer as extensions of our own memory. Thanks to the plummeting price of digital storage, Bell can easily store hundreds of thousands of videos, photos, emails, documents, and phone calls. His lifelog grows by about 170 gigabytes a month — an entire year of human experience could be saved on a not-too-expensive hard drive.

I recently started an office job, where I’m forced to use Microsoft Outlook every day. I’ve been a Gmail user for as long as I’ve been using email seriously. (I don’t count the Hotmail era of my life, when my inbox was stuffed with the Pink Floyd newsletter.)

Most jarring are the opposing design philosophies of Outlook and Gmail. Outlook mimics a real-life mailbox that relies on organizational metaphors like folders. Gmail has folders, but really, it thinks about email in a more abstract way — that nothing needs to be organized, as everything can be searched for.

You can apply rules to your Outlook inbox, but it’s clumsy and I found it easier to file things manually, one by one. I delete old emails so they don’t clutter up my inbox. At first, organizing emails felt like a chore, dragging them into folders and marking them with flags, but once I got used to it, I realized that the extra interaction was helping me remember what I needed to get done. Gmail might be a far more efficient, elegant way to manage email, but I had to credit the unwieldiness of Outlook for helping me commit important assignments to memory.

I helped my girlfriend move a few weekends ago. I’m the sort of person who restricts the number of sentimental objects I have to whatever fits in a single shoebox; Megan, on the other hand, likes to spread her sentimental belongings across what seems like four million boxes.

While she was packing her things into those four million boxes, I grumpily and relentlessly questioned the rationale of keeping so many things rather than tossing them out. Just scan these photos in and throw the prints away! Toss these old papers — they’re saved on your hard drive! To which she rebutted:

“If you’re looking for a file on your computer, you know what you are looking for. But if you are looking through a box for something else and come across an old letter, it’s not only a nice surprise but can also be a forgotten memory that you might not been looking for.”

As I watched her consider whether each and every item in her apartment was worth packing, I realized that having to make that decision gave her photos and old papers a deeper value. You might come across that old box of postcards when you’re cleaning out your closet or that old stuffed animal when you’re moving.

Which brings me back to Psycho Mantis. If my save game represented the things I had done in Metal Gear Solid — just as my computer hard drive serves represents the things I’ve done in my life — the scene with Psycho Mantis is the first time any digital memory of mine had been reflected upon or given any kind of meaning. Even if it was in a silly context, the experience was unexpected.

It takes more than simply recalling a file to make it valuable. It has to be considered, confronted, and even threatened by the possibility of being tossed or deleted. Hard drives have reached a point where they’re so big that we’ll never have to get rid of a file again. But with so many files saved indiscriminately, how are we supposed to remember the ones that matter most?

While writing this article, I saved this document 212 times.

Illustration by Yael Levy

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.