If memory is cheap, what will we come to value? Melanie Baker August 6, 2015 Columns, Featured, M-Theory Memory is cheap. Depending who you are and what you do, you could parse that statement a few different ways. If you’re of the engineering persuasion, you might think about how the amount of memory that was once the size and cost of a house is now pretty much considered throwaway swag from events. Or of the most elegant way to architect databases for All The Data, since there’s not really great cost to storing and mining everything now. If you’re of the marketing persuasion, you might think about how to get to know your customers and targeted audience from the data you’ve gathered about them. Who they are. What they do. What they think. What they like. How you can craft their behaviours in the way you want without them really noticing. How you can phrase the EULA (that no one will read anyway) so that you can do what you want with their data, without actually contravening privacy laws and such. If you’re an average consumer, you might think about how you share media with your friends these days, and how we’re getting closer to being able to just think a song, TV show, ebook, etc. to the friend with whom we’ve just discussed it. Mix tapes were cool, but even throwing something on a USB stick seems archaic now. Though they still seem de rigueur in movies and, occasionally, real life, to steal files from hacked systems. Typically mere seconds before being caught . . . If you’re a parent, you might think about how much of your kids’ lives you’ve recorded, in photos, video, blog posts, etc. Is it organized? Do you ever look at it? Will they ever look at it? Is bit rot an issue? My life is recorded on everything from yellowed slides to iPhone photos. How about yours? Or you might be worried about what your tweens are sending each other; whether it’s appropriate, and if they ever paid attention when you warned them about how content is forever and how fast it can get around. If you’re a grandparent, you might be pondering how your kids and grandkids need to put down their damned phones and cameras and tablets and get off the Internet for once and just experience something. Go outside and play instead of exercising only their thumbs on games. Go meet a friend instead of texting or Snapchatting. Well, sure, if you live far away, Facetiming is nice, but Facebook photo albums aren’t a family reunion, or the true story about that adventure you all had. Throwing away their lives for a bunch of coloured dots . . . When you think about it, memory is one of the key components of being. Consciousness, learning, emotion, its power to affect us. Its fallibility, its decay and use over time. It drives everything from art history to legal decisions to heartbreak. Recorded memory helps change the world, whether it’s Pulitzer prize-winning photos or documents leaked by whistleblowers and hackers. Figuring out how to handle digital memory is, and is going to remain, an important theme for a long time to come. I’ve read that one of our biggest problems as humans is that we have evolved and continue to evolve technology far too fast for our own evolution, our brains’ function, to keep up. We’ve built, released, and made mainstream technology whose power and impact we don’t really understand, which turns society reactive rather than proactive in figuring out how to use and manage it. “Pics or it didn’t happen,” can currently make careers or ruin lives as a result. Amazing power for something that’s usually so transitory. Sure, we have pictures, video, etc. But the Internet also has a really short attention span, so as important as they might be – or as much scandal as covertly edited versions of them are – in 10 minutes we’ll be fascinated by or outraged by something else. Memory is cheap, and that has incredible, far-reaching effects. Because we don’t have to work to remember, or stop and think, we can vent our spleens or mete out mob justice or accidentally unleash something we can’t recall in a split second. And now art is imitating life. We’ve rewired the meanings of relationships because volume can replace depth. Look at all the selfies we’ve taken, locations we’ve checked into, instant messages we’ve exchanged, etc. We must be besties. But when we’re so busy recording, are we experiencing? Kind of like those dads who are so busy snapping and recording family vacations that they’re not actually… vacationing. And what will they remember? Our brains are not actually designed to multi-task. We “context switch,” more or less efficiently. If we’re focused on a small screen, we’re not focused on the world. Y’know, that place where memories of actual, physical things and experiences are made. Until you go to an event and run into someone who clearly knows you and is happy to chat . . . except you’re panicking and wracking your brain about who the person is and how you know each other. If you could just pull out your phone to help you figure it out . . . It’s a given tool in any sci-fi movie, where your visual display, either inside your helmet or embedded in your vision, shows you all relevant info about anyone in front of you or who you request it for. Along with crosshairs in case you decide you need to shoot them. No need to rely on your own memory to connect you to a person before you, or help you decide their fate. Which opens a whole other can of worms: memory in the public eye. Memory from police body cams, autopsy photos, etc. What happened? How did it go down? (Chances are one side will have a very specific version of events, and the other side will be dead.) Who testified to what? Is it recorded, or just being recited from memory? Has recorded evidence been edited? Even recorded media are no longer trusted as the be all and end all to trump the fallibility of human memory and experience. So what can we trust? Memory is cheap. That means some fascinating and scary things these days. Do we need to restore it, or just evolve with it? And if it’s that cheap, while remaining a key part of the human experience, what will we come to value instead? Photo: Core Memory Room by Steve Jurvetson is licensed under CC BY 2.0. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.