Relativity: Memory, Truth and Immortality

1 11 2010

Author: Girlwithoutawatch


Ten years ago, I didn’t own a mobile phone. I didn’t own a phone book either, or perhaps I did, but it was always lost. None of this mattered, however, because back then I was capable of storing everyone’s telephone number in my head. In fact, I can still provide you with the phone numbers of dozens of friends from university, dozens from secondary school, even—if not especially—the phone numbers of most of my classmates from primary school.  Today, however, ten years after I bought my first mobile phone, I cannot tell you what my husband’s work number is.  I made a point to memorise his mobile number—more than anything in case of an emergency—but this was no easy task.  I am not alone in losing the skill of memorising telephone numbers; most people I know are unable to recall a telephone number an rely entirely on their mobiles, blackberries, iPods, Google, Yahoo and/or Outlook-address books.

So recently—after downloading the guzumptinth video of my daughters playing together—I got to thinking that much in the same that we are losing our capacity to use our brains to store phone numbers, we may (in the not too distant future) lose our capacity to remember events, places and even people without the assistance of our digital memory-bank of photos and videos.

Just yesterday, for example, I wanted to take my eldest daughter to meet up with a friend and her 3-year-old son, Alex.  The two children had met before, but time had passed since they last played together. When I told my daughter who we were going to see it was clear that she was struggling to recall the boy, and she became a bit anxious about meeting him.  So in order to get her to feel a bit more enthusiastic, I showed her a video I had made months back of the two of them playing happily.  We watched the video twice, clarifying a few details each time (such as the name of the park where we had played).  This was all it took for my daughter to put on her favourite party dress and sparkly shoes and to hurry me out the door.

It is unclear to me whether the video served to “trigger” an existing memory that had been stored but was too difficult to recall on its own, to “recover” a memory that had been lost or if this video actually served to “create” a memory that otherwise would never have existed.

But surely, it is obvious that the technological ease with which we are able to record the precious moment of our lives will begin to play havoc with our capacity to remember these moments unaided—or at least to remember them in the same way we do now.  I believe it is just a matter of time that our brains, or rather our children’s brains, will find it unnecessary to exert themselves in this way because it will become much more efficient, not to mention accurate, to have everything stored in a cyber-memory-cloud rather than in our own heads.


I love telling stories of past experiences.  Every time I tell one of my stories it seems to get better, interjected by slight exaggerations here and there, uniquely edited depending on the audience.  But the best of these stories tend to be those that have no real record of their happening at all. The ones that have no photographic proof, no video proof, no written proof of ever having occurred—they are most certainly the pre-email, pre-Facebook, pre-twitter, pre any real-time recording of what I was truly feeling and experiencing at that time.  So if I recall the story and describe the scenery at the time as hot and sunny, there is no image of rain to contradict me.  And if I describe myself as having been single at the time, there is no record to show that I was in a committed relationship.  I guess what I am suggesting is that in the future, stories such as these will become analogous to myth, and I will be viewed as an old-fashioned story teller.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily.  It is simply another reflection of our pursuit of truth.

Our children will be able to access the cyber data-base filled with endless amounts of video, photographic and written records of anyone they are curious about and, inevitably they will be able to then make a more informed assessment of who these people really are/were–their personality, achievements, values, beliefs, practices (whether it be a romantic interest, a distant relative, a potential work-hire, a local neighbour).

I believe these videos recordings (and the other cues and situations that induce awareness of the self such as mirrors or having an audience) not only increase the accuracy of our personal memory but they also help to make our children more self-aware.  Most of us can probably remember disliking the first time we heard the sound of our own voice played on a recording device.  I know that I felt extremely awkward the first time I watched a video of myself.  This has decreased with the appearances I make in the video footage of my children but I am still uncomfortable with it at some level.  The person before me continues to seem so different from the person I tend to think that I am (the voice is different, the gestures are different, my overall tone and body language does not completely match my own perception).  Fortunately, our children will not experience such awkwardness.  They will have grown up being fully aware of what they look and sound like—accustomed to short video clips of them doing anything from eating peas, spilling paint all over themselves, prancing around in a tutu, opening up gifts.  This will lead them to become self-aware much earlier in their childhood.  It will help them to gain a greater degree of control over how they are operating in the present, instead of reacting to something conditioned by their past. It will help them to become better communicators, improve their social skills, have greater empathy, and to ultimately be better decision-makers through a more objective evaluation of themselves.  A series of recent studies showed that self-awareness improves processing efficiency functions, such as working memory, processing speed and reasoning (Demetriou & Kazi, 2006).

Some say that when we fail to take the time to sort through those videos/ photos that are most important to us today, we are doing our future generations a disservice; that we are simply filling them with unprocessed, raw data that is not a true representation of who we are—i.e. the fact that we fail to weed through and select the “best” photos in our digital libraries, or that we don’t take the time to make photo albums or create quality edited films out of the thousands of short video clips stored on our hard drives.  But even if we are leaving it to others to sort through, I think there is value to be gained from our future generations deciding what is relevant to them, based on whatever it is that they are interested in finding—based on the truth they are searching to understand and to express by surveying, sorting through, and analysing all our rich multi-media data-base.

Besides, future generations will certainly have improved capabilities in data search, processing and analytics software.  When I was an undergrad, the LexisNexis archive database was all the rage—it allowed us to search full-text stories for key words, numerous articles on a specific topic, name or slogan that previously could have only been found by many months in the library, in just minutes. Fifteen years later and I honestly barely stepped foot in my university library whilst writing up my PhD dissertation: Almost all the information I needed, I could access without leaving my desk/computer.  Having more information in itself should not necessarily make life more difficult because we will also become more efficient at processing this information.

The exponential rate with which our information content (i.e. multi-media reporting, personal photo and video libraries, blogs, email correspondence, Facebook ‘status’ updates, tweets) and our information technology are advancing is a beautiful trend.  It is a quest to exchange information not only from continent to continent, and from private to public, but from past to future.  Our lives will ultimately be represented more truthfully and we will therefore be better understood to future generations.  Only good things can happen from a history better understood.


Okay so now, imagine having the technology used to film Avatar in a video camera the size of your Flip.

Imagine your children showing their children 3D-video footage of you reading a story and tucking them into bed, long after you’ve passed away.  These images of you will be so life-like that your grandchildren will feel almost as though you are sitting next them, reading them those stories.  Perhaps in this regard, we should be doing a bit more to preserve the immortality of our own parents.   For example—making more of an effort to turn our fabulous technology away from our children who are smothered in their own personal reality-TV shows anyway.  And/or perhaps we should create more recordings of us interacting with our children as well.

I think that this is what our children will want more than anything 20 years from now.  And because their own memories will most likely not function in the way that ours do today, they will be more dependent on such recordings.  And maybe, just maybe, this is our ticket to eternal youth too.



3 responses

17 02 2010

here is a link to an article you may find interesting: We’re in danger of losing our memories. We have to make sure digital doesn’t mean ephemeral, says the head of the British Library

17 02 2010
17 02 2010

Does not the digital age merely assist us with some memories, ‘freeing up capacity’ to take in more? I remember reading somewhere that the brain has a finite capacity to process (would need to check source, can’t remember where) and that things like calculators we use in my profession (I can no longer do math in my head) don’t hinder us so much as free up the brain for other memories and processes?

And as we discussed i think having a firm record of childhood, of parents, grandparents etc can only be helpful in allowing children to be in touch with their family history – and I strongly believe this family history is what shapes who we are as human beings (thus the basis of that wacky ‘family constellations therapy’ i did and wrote up on my blog). So a better understanding, or preserving of a memory that wouldn’t be there naturally (how many events do you recall from age 2-3?) can only be a good thing. I think you’d agree as you mention that children will become more self aware through the assistance of video recordings, etc. Which is why I agree with you that we need to turn the video cameras to the older family members to preserve their presence for future generations. This also comes back to your question of truth – so much is hidden from us re what really went on in past generations…but to your point, is this the stuff we’re going to capture on flip video? Did I reach for the camera when Simon walked out? Of course not. But will Will be able to get some true understanding of what really went on between me and his dad, and between me and him and just what went on with his mom by reading my blog? I hope so (obviously not until he is an adult but still)

I think the question of truth is an interesting one as my therapist is so keen on being totally honest with kids from an early age. Telling them what is going on and reassuring them all the way. It helps them feel more secure, and to undertsand that life is just tough but we can model behaviour for them re how to deal with life’s curveballs…wasn’t the subject of your writing but the topic of honesty with children i think is a big one…

Really thoughtful stuff, i enjoyed reading it tremendously ! xx

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