Martian Thoughts

Saving our memory


Up until recently, having a reliable memory was deemed a useful and impressive talent. My grandad used to recall how he got out of class much earlier than all of his classmates because the required task – learning a significantly long poem by heart – only took him a couple of minutes. Even in his eighties, he regretted having gone back to the school to taunt his mates with snacks from behind a window.

By the time I was in primary school, I could tell learning stuff by heart was rapidly going out of fashion. Having inherited my grandad’s extraordinary memory, I made the most of it while I could. It paid dividends: repeating random names and dates may be tedious and pointless, but everything we reason and understand is only as good as we remember it. Indeed, memory is as crucial as it has ever been; we’ve simply delegated most of its traditional uses to machines. We don’t need to remember phone numbers or directions, the names of authors or books or poems, song lyrics, or recipes. Why spend any effort on activities that are done for us so efficiently by devices we can carry in our pockets? Being a fan of innovation, I am the first to delegate to my smartphone and password manager.

However, what follows shouldn’t be an abandonment of our biological memory. On the contrary, the delegation technology offers should free up our memory so we can use more of it on essential aspects of reality. We should remember feelings and actions and facts and the myriad relationships between them. We should recall the impact an event had on us when we judge a similar occurrence, we should link it to something else that we know happened elsewhere, and our conclusion could be of value to us and those who care to listen.

We have the chance to make more sense of the world than ever before. Yet, it feels the opposite is true: that we live in a nonsensical society where chaos and madness reign. It may be because we have forgotten that we can remember, that not everything is happening right here right now, that everything has a context and that that context is only as useful as our memory of it.