6 Nov 2009


Gordon Bell is that most single-minded of creatures - a retired man with a hobby. Except that when the computer scientist got to pensionable age he didn't decide on an allotment, but embarked on a bizarre project for Microsoft. He began storing his memories on a computer, for safekeeping. Thousands of e-mails, photos, childhood mementos and commemorative t-shirts: all are in the Bell archive. And every minute of every waking hour, a little camera around Bell's neck snaps a picture - while an audio recorder stores all conversations.

"Forgetting is not a feature," the 75 year-old believes. "It's a flaw."

Anyone who has ever dried up in an exam or groped around for their car keys would surely agree. When Amazon can remember every book you ever bought, and Google promises you never need junk another e-mail, the catch is hard to spot.

But the American technologist does have a nay-sayer: Viktor Mayer-Schonberger. Both men agree that ultra-cheap digital memory means we can remember more than ever before; both men have a book out. But where Bell has the better title (TOTAL RECALL versus Mayer-Schonberger's DELETE; an Arnold Schwarznegger smackdown beats a keyboard function*), it's the Austrian academic whose arguments are most sympathetic.

Unlike Bell, most web users don't set out to store their memories - they just want to share photos, or post a bolshie comment online. They don't realise that they are leaving digital evidence that may some day be used against them.

Mayer-Schonberger tells the story of a would-be teacher, Stacey Snyder, who was denied qualifications after university officials found her party pictures on MySpace - and deemed her unfit for a classroom. An extreme example? Sure, but plenty of cautious romantics Google their dates before meeting them.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for forgetting is that it enables one to move on. A couple of years ago, a Californian woman came to public attention. At 41, AJ could remember everything - even what she had for breakfast 30 years ago. Surely this was a gift? Not to her.

"There are all ..... these moments. You have to make a choice and then it's 10 years later, and I'm still beating myself up over them. Your memory is the way it is to protect you. I feel like it hasn't protected me."

SOURCE: Aditya Chakrabortty reporting in the Guardian.

PETTY WITTER SAYS: *Anyone care to explain this to me? Obviously not something I've picked up on.
I'm with AJ on this one, your memory is indeed the way it is to protect you. How many of us have never said or done something and wished they hadn't? I'm a great one for beating myself up about things months, even years later, but can't imagine what it must be like to be remember every little thing for ever.
Where do you stand on the subject?


GMR said...

I think that it would be both blessing and a curse to remember every single moment of one's life for much the same reasons you mentioned. I mean think of all the times you've done something you wish you could take back (oh wait, you can't, your mind is protecting you)....but then you have the opposite end of the spectrum with great times you wish you could remember (either in more detail or completely). Since I don't have a memory like that (except with songs...it's weird, ask me what I wore yesterday, can't tell you. Song comes on the radio I loved in childhood...singing every lyric.), I suppose it's hard to imagine, but I wonder if the lady that can remember everything could somehow be "taught" to blur the edges on the memories that should be forgotten. What I mean is, just because she remembers them, she doesn't have to focus on them. Your brain can only think of so many things at one time....right? (just my two cents) =0)

Martha said...

There is a clinical saying, The tincture of time, which I believe in.
I have an excellent memory, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. I don't want a digital record of every single waking moment, how dull. Things that become seared on my memory and heart are what move me, not some digital scrapbook shoved on a shelf, probably forgotten! It also strikes me as incredibly self absorbed and narcissistic.
I am cautious about my online life, everyone deserves privacy and it is my responsibility to maintain an acceptable level.
Excellent post, thank you for your insight.

Cara Powers said...

I occasionally need these reminders to be careful about what I post in comments, on my blog, and especially Twitter.

Tina said...

I have a terrible short term memory. I seem to think in colours or smells or seeing passages on pages. I saw an interview with that woman who can't forget. She said everything ever is cycling constantly on a carousel through her mind. That would be a total curse, like never being able to break free of an OCD cycle. It doesn't do to bottle things up, but the past is a different country and its not good to spend all one's time there.

Rob Innis said...

I thought everything was stored away but that we have to find the key to actually remembering it, that of course is the tricky bit. Well for ma anyway.

chitra said...

Petty witter
That was a really wonderful post on memory. A few years back I went in for some training how to recollect things, memorise etc . This has some limitations also.
I feel the delete option would be really good.

brizmus said...

I'm with AJ. Sometimes I wish my memory were just a little bit better than it is. At the same time, there are some things I am thrilled to have blocked out. Memories can hurt you.

Great post!