Once upon a time, there was nothing to do with thoughts except remember them. There was no alphabet to transcribe them in, no paper to set them down upon. Anything that had to be preserved had to be preserved in memory. Any story that would be retold, any idea that would be transmitted, any piece of information that would be conveyed, first had to be remembered. Today it often seems we remember very little. When I wake up, the first thing I do is check my day planner, which remembers my schedule so that I don’t have to. When I climb into my car, I enter my destination into a GPS device, whose spatial memory supplants my own. When I sit down to work, I hit the play button on a digital voice recorder or open up a notebook that holds the contents of my interviews.
I have photographs to store the images I want to remember, books to store knowledge, and now, thanks to Google, I rarely have to remember anything more than the right set of search terms to access humankind’s collective memory. Growing up, in the days when you still had to punch seven buttons, or turn a clunky rotary dial, to make a telephone call, I could recall the numbers of all my close friends and family. Today, I’m not sure if I know more than four phone numbers by heart. And that’s probably more than most. According to a survey conducted in 2007 by a neuropsychologist at Trinity College Dublin, fully a third of Brits under the age of thirty can’t remember even their own home land line number without puling it up on their handsets. The same survey found that 30 percent of adults can’t remember the birthdays of more than three immediate family members. Our gadgets have eliminated the need to remember such things anymore. Forgotten phone numbers and birthdays represent minor erosions of our everyday memory, but they are part of a much larger story of how we’ve supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of technological crutches—from the alphabet to the BlackBerry.
These technologies of storing information outside our minds have helped make our modern world possible, but they’ve also changed how we think and how we use our brains. With our blogs and tweets, digital cameras, and unlimited-gigabyte e-mail archives, participation in the online culture now means creating a trail of always present, ever searchable, unforgetting external memories that only grows as one ages. As more and more of our lives move online, more and more is being captured and preserved in ways that are dramatically changing the relationship between our internal and external memories. We are moving toward a future, it seems, in which we will have all encompassing external memories that record huge swaths of our daily activity.
So why bother investing in one’s memory in an age of externalized memories? The best answer I can give is the one that I received unwittingly from EP, whose memory had been so completely lost that he could not place himself in time or space, or relative to other people. That is: How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory. Not yet, at least. Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character. - Joshua Foer