From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

September 29, 2007*: The shoebox advantage

Back in the late 1960s, when Simon and Garfunkel sang the theme to their Bookends album, it seemed as though they perceived memory as a commodity that dwindles and dissipates as we continue to age:

Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you
It wasn't that memories were in and of themselves of particular value, but instead that they, as opposed to tangible items, which apparently got lost, or broken, or thrown out, or misplaced, at least stuck around.

On the face of things, and within the context of the mood establishing music to which the words were sung, it sounded quite profound. When I attempt to give the words a deeper reading, however, I find them more than a bit confusing. While I can understand that we should preserve our memory, and there are perhaps exercises that can help us do that, the injunction to preserve our memories is one that seems close to impossible to act upon. What's more, as has become quite apparent in societies where longevity has become common, memories often don't last. All that's left us is, more often than not, objects - furniture, books, clothes, items that have accumulated, rather than been collected, over a lifetime. So does "preserve your memories" mean that we should attach our thoughts and reflections on the past onto objects that we collect and keep? If that's what we're supposed to do, then we find ourselves with a vast amount of objects, and the memories cease to be "all that's left" us.

The logistics, or technicalities, of precisely how we might go about preserving our memories aside, if those memories are all we have left, then they certainly should be considered things to which we should cling. But today, forty years after Simon and Garfunkel first sang that song, we seem to have accumulated so many memories that, rather than our clinging to them, they cling to us, they weigh us down. Our experience has become so memory intensive, that the continued generating of memories becomes a hindrance. It establishes an empheral, yet at the same time a very real, curtain that separates us from the immediacy of experience. Instead of our observing something and allowing ourselves to approach it on its own terms, we say to ourselves "that's like ...", and find ourselves categorizing the new as an iteration of the known. Memory not only shapes experience, it confines it.

Artifacts abound for preserving our memories. We have mementos of various sorts, some of them, such as trophies, specifically manufactured for preserving a memory, while others work as repositories of memory through a purely subjective process of attachment. Though I suppose that some objects are better suited for preserving specific memories, basically, any object can be the repository of any memory. Simon and Garfunkel (in the line prior to that I've already quoted), however, identified what is without a doubt the preferred artifact of our times:
Long ago it must be, I have a photograph
I'm not much of a collector of photographs, though like any other person who grew up in the second half of the twentieth century I have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of them. Though not the sole, artifact of memory production, photographs probably outnumber all other means of remembering or reminscing combined. We see our photographs, and we remember. But we don't just see them. We purposefully sit down with them in order to devote time to remembering. Personally, in addition to photographs I've accumulated (to mention only those that are basically flat) business cards, napkins, slips of paper, tickets, and almost everything else that it's possible to save without actually collecting them. And each item saved (or if not exactly saved, at least put aside because we can't throw it out), with each slip of paper placed in a book at a passage which resonates for us, we prepare the terrain for future reminiscing.

And in this way, within the totality of consciousness, the immediacy of experience becomes a smaller and smaller component of the whole, a whole that's instead made up primarily of memory. We are, in other words, perhaps nine parts "remembering" to one part "experiencing", even though at any given moment in time, the "experiencing" is the dominant component of our consciousness. We are constantly in the process of attempting to make sense of what we experience, and "memory" is the tool via which, if at all, we're able to this. We place the here and now into the categories of understanding, of making sense of the world, that we've created over time. Our "experience processing" takes place through comparing what we experience to what we already know, what we've already experienced, what we remember. This contextualizing of experience is precisely what makes it ours.

All this reminiscing and reflecting, as astute Boidem readers may already have guessed, has basically been little more than an introductory hors d'ouvre to the main course of this column, though of course as so often happens with the Boidem, the appetizer has taken up so much room that we've hardly got any left for that main course. Undoubtedly there are many people who bemoan the fact that experiencing is so overly eclipsed by remembering (if, of course, my totally unscientific computations are correct). But Gordon Bell doesn't seem to be one of these. It would appear that he thinks that the scales are still too heavily weighted toward experience. If Bell had his way, we would apparently be totally engulfed in memory.

Gordon Bell is the guiding light of the MyLifeBits project, funded by Microsoft. The goal of the project is rather simple and straightforward - to create "a lifetime store of everything". According to Bell, we're reaching the stage at which nothing need be forgotten. We can have a mirror of our entire lives on a handheld device. And when we'll have such a device we'll be able to easily search through it (in the same way we can run a search on a hard drive) to find whatever we might want about, or in, our past. Trying to remember the smell of a special dinner? Easily retrievable. That time we fell down the stairs and got seriously shaken up? Check out the shoes we were wearing in order to avoid them in the future. Can't quite remember who all the people were at that special birthday party? Bring it up on the hard drive and check whether someone we thought was a good friend actually jilted us by not attending.

I find it hard not to be attracted to a project of this sort, if for no other reason than that it's so over the top. It's been in the press numerous times, though primarily as a curiosity, which it surely is. But it's not only an interesting conversation piece. There's a strange logic to it, almost an inevitability. If the web can contain everything, if the Wikipedia can already have over 2,000,000 entries that cover even the most esoteric of topics, why shouldn't each of our lives also be "complete" and accessible - at least to ourselves. What's more, Bell insists that this isn't just an exercise in narcissism. If we know what we ate each day, we can perhaps run a simple program that tells us what particular foods didn't agree with us that have been causing our occasional upset stomaches. Perhaps we'll find a correlation between the sort of books we read before going to sleep at night, and our productivity at work the next day.

Bell's goal may be a single hard drive that tells our life story, but perhaps that's already somewhat inconsistent with today's digital landscape. In today's world of cloud computing our hard drives are no longer the sole custodians of our digital presence. Today our lives are spread out over numerous servers - a photograph here, a comment on a discussion forum there, a collection of bookmarks somewhere else, and of course much more. Hoping to have some sort of centralized sovereignty over these numerous representations of ourselves seems strangely out of sync with today's digital reality. Our identities are constructions of numerous digital expressions, distributed throughout cyberspace. What's more, social networking assumes at least some degree of social construction of our identities. Our own definitions of ourselves that take shape via the countless snippets of our lives that we might save on a personalized project such as Bell's may be our own. But as we inhabit more and more realms of cyberspace, our identities cease to be defined by ourselves alone. Those identities become constructs of the myriad reflections of ourselves that we've planted on the web, and of the interactions that others have with those identities.

Which brings me back, on two different levels, to the shoebox. The shoebox seems to be a fitting metaphor for our cyberspaced identities. Not a well organized album that tells a clear, and usually chronologically ordered, story, but a grabbag of snippets that organizes and reorganizes itself as we view it, not in any predetermined order, but differently each time as we create and recreate paths of meaning. But in addition, among the various other possibilities, the shoebox seems also to be the preferred recepticle for our memories - definitely more desirable than a project such as Bell's that permits memory to dominate us, perhaps even compels it to do so. Precisely because it's under-organized and thus leaves considerable room for the chance recollection to lead us down an unexpected path, and because it's not immediately accessible but instead demands that we take it off the shelf and purposefully peruse its content, it permits us, perhaps even compels us, to distinguish between the doing and the remembering. By deliniating a clear and confined place for memories, we're also making room for experiencing. And that can't be a bad thing.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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