Gizmodo did a week-long series of posts relating to memory and how the transition to social networking, cloud storage, and a more digital lifestyle has affected our ability to remember things, both positively and negatively.
I often joke that I, like David Bowie, have “the memory of a tiny goldfish.” what this often leads to is me forgetting often important things like birthdays, phone numbers, and previous engagements, despite my best attempts to keep these things in mind and present.
Another side-effect is my increasing inability to remember my life, past events and experiences. Sure, there are formative events, important parts of my life that I do indeed remember, and these will undoubtedly be clear to me for many years, but there are far more events, people, and places that blur together unintelligibly. I lose track of the who’s and the what’s. I get taken by the moment, unable to free myself from what is happening right now. While some people are unable to free themselves from the past, I cannot seem to find my way back to it.
In some cases, this is a good thing, a GREAT thing. I’m sure we’ve all had those moments we would rather not remember, experiences we’d rather forget. Twenty years ago, that may have been possible. Without a persistent digital memory, our past dangled above the abyss of oblivion. If I wanted to forget something, I stopped thinking about it. I burned the pictures, the letters, the drawings. Physical things held meaning, and their destruction was cathartic. Now, however, our lives are transitioning away from fickle physicality and into immortal ones and zeroes. Tiny bits of information define who we are now, and maintaining those bits and bytes from now until eternity is most likely inevitable. Vast data centers will store our information for…well…forever. Our demographics will be used as part of research and studies done by mega-Internet firms. Our pictures will remain tagged long after we have passed on. In a sense, we are now immortal. This immortality, however, brings with it another thing to consider.
In years past, a person engaged in illegal or immoral activity could hide his or her tracks relatively easily by being mindful of his or physical space. He or she could walk away from his or her old life and back onto the straight and narrow. Now, mistakes stay with you. Email exchanges, instant messenger conversations, and posts on forums persist and are accessible for many years after they have lost their relevance. They may no longer be important, but they still exist and are accessible. Can you say that about your notes from high school? Pictures from graduation? How about that wedding you went to? Digital storage and cloud computing make all of this possible.
But what if you want to forget? You can’t. You’ll run a search for something in your inbox, and you’ll be served up an email from a painful time in your life, potentially years ago. Maybe you haven’t thought about it for years, and now there it is, staring you in the face, a reminder of a past you may have tried to forget. In the physical world, the chance that mistakes will literally come back is slim. We can put things behind us, move away, physically destroy our past. In the digital world, we cannot. Just because you deleted that email doesn’t mean the other person did, and those pictures on Facebook, despite being untagged, still exist on their servers in someone else’s profile.
All of this begs us to make one simple change to our lives: live honestly.
We cannot do things the right way each time…we are human, after all. But as our digital worlds collide with the physical world, we are given the opportunity to live our lives more truly, to line up our intentions with our actions and live with purpose.
The next time you find yourself in a situation that may not be entirely characteristic of the person you have been trying to be, think of how you would like to be remembered. Chances are, someone is tagging you when the night is through, and they won’t stop to consider the ramifications of that red solo cup on your future careers. Do you want to have a job when all is said and done? Do you want to be remembered as “that guy who went nuts on the pool table wearing a lampshade as a hat?” If yes, then go right ahead, lampshade guy.
But, if you think for even one second that this is something you might not want future generations of Americans to read, don’t write it. As we move towards ubiquitous image, video, and sound capture, we will have to become increasingly more aware of the weight of our thoughts, words, and actions. So let’s all pull our pants back up and clean up our lives. Does that mean our Facebook pages may become dull and boring? Maybe. Does it mean that our lives will be lived more intentionally and meaningfully?