Search This Blog

Feb 12, 2011

Toward the permanent past

My memory is average – not the best, not the worst. An idea or a concept is easy for me to remember, a name or a year – much harder. I may go blank on a name when I unexpectedly see a familiar face. For most people of my age, some words just become irretrievable in a conversation, only to surface again later, when they are not needed. Hundreds of conversations a month are part of my routine; most involve decisions, small and large. A few months later, I often remember the conversation, but cannot recall what the agreement was. In rare occasions, I have absolutely no recollection of even having a conversation. This happened perhaps 4-5 times in my life, one last week. It is both funny and embarrassing, when a colleague sent me a copy of an email exchange, of which I had absolutely no memory. Often, it is somewhere in between – I have a vague memory, but cannot recall neither the details of the conversation, nor the decision. And of course, sometimes, for whatever reason, I remember very clearly a particular dialogue that happened many months, or even years ago. Memory is a strange and unreliable thing. It is known not only to fade, but to recall incorrectly, filling the gaps with imagined details as vivid as reality, and yet wholly invented. We would all do much better if we remembered how human memory works, and what it is capable and not capable of doing. It is hard to believe that another person does not remember a conversation which you remember clearly. And yet it is very common. When someone recalls a conversation very differently, with details that seem invented – we all suspect ill intent, what else? But it could be just one of the many malfunctions of memory – yours or the other person’s.
It is fascinating to observe how the human society changes. We live through the writing revolution 2.0. The first one allowed recording certain important conversations. Neither law nor commerce is possible without writing, a solid if very limited image of the past. But now we have a way to write down much more - exponentially more, and easily retrieve what is needed. On the eight day God created email and Google. Many if not most of decisions involve email. And when they don’t, I usually either write an email or ask others to write an email to me. Those things are indestructible, and live forever, if you only know how to archive. Google Desktop is another wonderful helper. It searches and indexes your entire hard drive, and will instantly find emails, files, even web pages you visited containing a specific word or expression. Those things are vastly superior to old manila files with paper. The direct result of this artificial memory enhancement is, I believe, reduction in human conflict. Thirty years ago, if there was no memo typed on a typewriter (a huge investment of time), different versions of the past would inevitably clash, lead to misunderstanding, to mutual accusations, and to conflict. Now, I search Google Desktop, and it three seconds it brings every email and every file that has to do with the conversation. The past is becoming more and more permanent, and less and less a collection on competing stories. The past is a clear picture with many more details.
One day, everything will be recorded, and all events will leave a permanent impression  – all conversations, small talk, important and unimportant decisions, all gossip and table conversations; all sins and moments of grace. How is it going to change us, when we cannot deny and rewrite the past? What would be the world in which every fact in every memoir could be checked, and literally every lie exposed? This is not about privacy – we should fight to keep our personal histories private. However, just imagine that even our work lives will be completely recorded?  But also imagine your private life had a record – only if for your own personal retrieval. Would you want to know what you told your child or your spouse on February 12, 1991, at noon, in case you disagree what exactly happened?  My guess is – we will get to used to it, we get used to anything with time.


  1. Anonymous5:33 PM

    Sasha, watch the "after life" by Hirokazu Koreeda
    and all your questions will be answered

  2. Google Desktop...Uhmm... Interesting....

    This entry reminds me of Richard Rorty's Philosophy as the Mirror of Nature (1979). Rorty would say that even if we could record everything such recording is just that. It is a representation of reality and not reality itself. Philosophy, Rorty argues, has overrelied on representational theory of perception and a correspondence theory of truth. It has done so hoping that our experience or language might mirror the way reality actually is.