Memory Overload

As hard drives get bigger and cheaper, we’re storing way too much.

There’s a famous allegory about a map of the world that grows in detail until every point in reality has its counterpoint on paper; the twist being that such a map is at once ideally accurate and entirely useless, since it’s the same size as the thing it’s meant to represent.

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Something very similar is happening in the world around us, though the phenomenon captured is time, not space, and the medium is digital memory rather than paper and ink. Consider, for example, a paradox well-known to new parents: Mom and Dad buy a video camera expecting to document Junior’s first years, only to find that, while they do indeed shoot anything and everything, they never get around to watching all they recorded. There aren’t enough hours in the day for such marathons of consumption.

There was an era when a mechanically captured memory was a rare and precious thing: a formal photo, a faint recording of someone’s voice. Nowadays it’s all you can do to avoid leaving a recording behind as you go about your day – especially as hard drives get bigger and devices more ubiquitous. The average American is caught at least a dozen times a day on surveillance cameras: at bank machines, above intersections, outside tourist spots, on the dashboards of police cruisers. Businesses log every keystroke made by their employees; help centers store audio of telephone calls, as does 911. DigiMine CEO Usama Fayyad, a computer scientist turned data mining entrepreneur, calculates that the data storage curve is now rocketing upward at a rate of 800 percent per year. “It makes Moore’s law look like a flat line,” he says. “Companies are collecting so much data they’re overwhelmed.”

Mechanical memory – to its unexpected advantage – degrades. Colors fade, negatives crack, manuscripts grow brittle, grooves get scratched. What emerges from these depredations is a crucial sense of both the pastness of the past, and its presence. Time takes just enough out of acetate and celluloid to remind us of the distance between now and then, while leaving just enough to remind us of the nearness of our own history.

But digital memory – ubiquitous, fathomless, and literally gratuitous – serves neither idea: The past is always here and always perfect; everything can be represented, no moment need be lost. Moreover, all of it is as good as new, and every copy identical to the original. What’s missing is a cadence, a play of values, or a respect for the way loss informs our experience of time. Like the map that’s as big as the world itself, it’s useless precisely because it’s too good.

In a way, we’ve engineered ourselves back in time. When it was rare and expensive, mechanical memory swamped the real thing; what you most vividly recalled from your vacation wasn’t necessarily the most striking part, but what you had the best picture of. Recollecting my own early childhood, I can’t tell the experiences from the photographs of them that I’ve seen since. As recently as 160 years ago, such a phenomenon would have been inconceivable – there simply was no such thing as a photo, film, an audiotape. Now there’s a surfeit, to the same effect. Moments are no longer fixed as monuments around which memories accrue – the picture in your wallet, your favorite uncle’s Super 8 movies, a single song on a 45. There’s just a constant downpour of experience, some of it real and some of it representation, a fluid and uninflected cataract.

Whether this is a boon or a disaster I can’t say. Such subtle patterns in the history of human experience tend to escape that kind of judgment. But the result is a telling contradiction: Our culture has become engulfed in its past and can make no use of it at all.



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