Write only memories

December 23, 2011 at 5:34 pm (books, computers, internet) (, , , , , )

I’m just reading the epilogue of Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together”.  This book has generally changed my mind a little towards continued acceptance of social media by society.

One thing she is describes at the end is the contrast between when she herself went off to college, and wrote letters back to her mother from time to time, to today, as her daughter is off to college and they share texts, skype each other and otherwise stay in touch.

I always considered it a positive benefit of social media that people can stay in touch – friends after they leave school, parents with kids, etc – and it is, but there is a downside to this always on, always connected, always at-the-end-of-a-line communications too.

Will kids every really gain independence if mum is just a text away?  Will they ever develop empathy and social skills required for anything other than superficial social relationships if it is always mediated by a screen?  Some will, some won’t.  Maybe it is true that the communicators will be using these tools to communicating better while the recluses can now pretend to have a social life … I don’t know.

But what the epilogue was making me consider was more the recording and preservation of digital memories.  If you have a letter, it can sit in a loft to be discovered one day, to get out and cherish and give an insight into the writers mind at the time.  What will be the “hidden in the loft” letters of today?  An email buried amongst 1000s of other emails?  Ephemeral texts long since deleted?  How many of those picture uploaded to “the cloud” will ever be looked at again?

No, today it is possible to record practically everything, but that means that often nothing is ever singled out for posterity or special preservation.  We will get to the stage where one’s whole life is spent catching up on what contacts are doing today that there will never be time to look back over preserved memories.

Our digital archive will become an audit trail, to only be perused when something has to be checked.  Who will browse through 1000s of photos or emails or chat logs just to reminisce?  No, when you have 1 second of digital record for each second of your life, how many of those same precious seconds would you need to be able to read any of it again.

So whilst it is possible to have full-life recording in various forms, from a memories point of view it would appear to be a write-only memory.  Designed to benefit the holding companies by providing fodder for data mining.  In recording so much, we might be gaining nothing at all.

It will be interesting to see how society develops – will we see a return to older style activities – promoting selected digital records into preserved snapshots of life?  With so many photos, will people cherish a bit of time taken to print a few out for an old-style photo album?  And will we see a return to giving someone your full attention by composing a physical letter?

Interesting to see what happens and what the push-backs against always-on, always-connected, always-recording will be.





  1. Documentally said,

    Thanks for taking the time to write this. Some interesting points. Rather than delve through the attic i am being reminded of shared digital moments through platforms like memolane. I imagine the more people realise the points you make the more they will look for platforms that allow us the same reflection.

  2. Kevin said,

    Memolane looks very interesting. But that does fall a little in the ‘I’ll let an algorithm pick the good bits” category maybe. I wonder how it chooses – might have to have a play.

    Of course what could be really interesting is if it starts subtly changing your memories for you – eg show your photo but swaps the coke can for a Pepsi. We are trusting a lot to the integrity of our digital services, when their motivations are totally commercial

    As we rely on them more and more there will be tendency to stop bothering to remember anything for ourselves. Already we assume the presence of google and don’t bother remembering so many facts anymore. I wonder if the pub quiz’s days are numbered. And I’m waiting for the google edition trivial pursuit game!


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