As animals go, human beings are not particularly unique. There are other creatures with considerable brain power, there are others that have a fair amount of dexterity, and there are many others that surpass us on every level of physical strength and prowess. One thing that does make us different from the rest, is our habit of storing memories.
Along the road, we found a way for every generation to not need to re-learn all the old tricks, but instead to build on what came before. We were able to learn from the past because, from the very beginning of our history, we endeavoured to record and pass on our memories.
Animals pass on instincts to their young and in some cases, the elders teach the young by example, but the idea of storing knowledge for the benefit of those to come seems to have been a human innovation. Even with our increased ability to communicate, and therefore to teach our offspring, before technology, remembering perfectly was not an option.
The human mind is designed to forget all but the most important material. In our relatively long lives, facts and trivia are lost in the cavalcade of random memories of daily existence. Sure we can answer a question when asked, but there is no singular compendium of memory waiting to be poured into the awaiting next generation at a moment’s notice.
In this journey of storing our memories, and hence our knowledge and understanding of the world, we have come very far, from colourful scratchings on rocks to tiny USB storage devices that we now throw around like detritus, filled with email backups, address books, journal entries, video clips and digital snapshots galore. Now everything is on permanent record, and yet it is more fragile than it ever was. A flick of a switch and decades of carefully collected memories can be lost in an instant, a small technical error in equipment that is ever making itself obsolete, and entire branches of thinking can be struck for good from human record. So, on both a personal and a societal level, the act of recording, sorting and collating memories has become a major portion of our lives.
I myself have written on this topic before, from my erstwhile hunt for personal information management(PIM) software, to my reflection on the benefits of looking back over your old text messages. For there can be no doubt that all this record-keeping and memory-collecting has its benefits; The development of the entire human race has depended on these things and will continue to do so. But it must be asked, that as we get involved in this process of personal record-keeping on an unprecedented scale, how much of active living do we miss? In honouring the past, don’t we sometimes dishonour the present?
Let’s clear one thing up at the outset, record-taking is not a creative accomplishment. It is simply necessary administrative paper-shuffling. In the far past we had storytellers who were the guardians of memory, and then we had historians. Their accomplishment was in the interpretation and the presentation of the memories they possessed, and they continue to play an important role in fixing our collective memories, in being our conscience for past deeds, and a warning for the future. Today, however, we are all historians, building up the perfectly constructed picture of our own little worlds, gathering an amount of data that will be impossible for any human being to consume in a life time.
It is not far fetched to imagine that at some point a new function will be created in society, those that honour the dead by reliving their memories, all multiple quadrillion terabytes of them. Then, we as a culture will truly have perfect memory, irrespective of whether or not what is remembered is significant or useful. The question is, will there be enough people around capable of learning from it? For reliving the memories of the past can be so much more enticing than trying to create your own.