Why do we forget?

Is perfect recall a blessing or a curse?

Before I dive into a rant on memory, forgetting, implants and biology—here’s a quick update.

I learned so much running a couple of sessions on the future events that I’ve decided to make this a regular thing. I’m going to be talking with some fascinating people in the coming weeks. You can listen in and ask questions by registering below; as always, I promise to spend your time wisely.

Reinventing a restaurant

Randy Smerik, a close friend and serial entrepreneur, turned his fine-dining restaurant into digital experiences in just a couple of weeks, on Tuesday, May 26.

Naturally, Randy needed a shot of this graffiti. And then he made me a T-shirt with the photo.

Randy’s a master storyteller, the quintessential bon vivant, who races headlong into challenges with unbridled enthusiasm. You should join us.

Hear Randy's story

Spaces, conversations, and virtual birthday parties

Misha Glouberman, a bestselling author and expert on how the spaces we’re in change how we interact, crafted a multi-room birthday party in Zoom with some surprising outcomes. You can hear how he did it—including the one silent communal moment that left me breathless despite its simplicity, on Tuesday, June 7.

The best virtual birthday


Why forget?

The author of Britain’s official report on the 1918 flu pandemic said in 1935, “there is some psychological interest in the fact … that actually the emotional impression created [by the influenza pandemic] was fainter than that produced by much less grave epidemiological happenings.”

Collective amnesia can be lethal. But the world today is vastly different from the one in 1918. Every videoconference begins with five minutes of Social Distancing updates; the hashtags, photos, and messages we send today are a visceral public document, edited in real time by millions.

An unprecedented social experiment

In many ways, we’re running the biggest social experiment in human history. We have data on climate change, air travel, universal basic income, car accidents, telemedicine, private versus public health. Sociologists, anthropologists, and environmentalists will be combing through the records for decades to come.

These collective memories remind us of best practices and coping mechanisms, serving a memetic immune system. Or they may serve as triggers, exhuming traumas. But how we remember—or choose to forget—the world in which we’re living will change how resilient we are as a species.

Homo Connectus

Humans today are hybrid organic/digital creatures, a sort of homo connectus. We now have technologies that can remember forever. Smartphones and search are cognitive upgrades. We might be terrible at keeping notes, but our algorithms have no choice but to do so. And as we enter an era of abundant, instant memory, we need to talk about whether, on an individual level, remembering is good or bad.

To be human is to forget. Forgetting the past grows ivy back across its sins, restoring privacy. Pain recedes. Yet we know being able to remember everything is an option, because people like Marilu Henner and Kim Peek have near-perfect recall. So why did evolution not choose it?

Technology overcomes the limitations of biological memory. Whether we download ourselves into machines, or get really good personal agents and prosthetic brains, we’re nearing that singularity.

Already, searching our inbox—the logfile of our online lives—and scrolling through photos in the cloud gives us recall we couldn’t have imagined a few decades ago. I can tell you where I was, and what I saw, and with whom I communicated, in just a few clicks.

Apparently, in April 2014 I was searching for weird clipart.

This reveals vulnerabilities and ethical quandaries we haven’t really tackled yet, outside of shows like Black Mirror:

  • What if someone tampers with our memories?

  • How will we search them quickly?

  • What’s the interface like?

  • Can we speculate and fill in the blanks? Can an algorithm do so for us?

  • Can we share memories with others, and what does that mean for trust? Can we revoke them?

  • Do our personal agents take the fifth, afforded special protections as extensions of ourselves?

Will we ever have perfect recall?

Perfect recall seems like some kind of implant jacked into the base of the neck—Gibsonian burning-chrome sockets jacking into the Matrix. Surely it’s centuries before reliable brain-machine interfaces let us revisit our past as if we were there, accessing every facet of a memory?

While that’s true, technology is already changing how we see the past, in ways that have snuck up on us. Closed-circuit TV, ubiquitous smartphone cameras, GPS, cell towers, contact tracing apps, and more make it possible for those with authority to roll back the clock and solve a crime.

We already have partial recall through our digital proxies. A fair simulacrum of much our pasts is at hand today. Photos, calendars, emails, and the digital spray of our real-world lives floats in the cloud.

Apparently, my first GMail was to my sister! What I was doing before 2004, I have no idea.

We can name thousands of faces with a click. This already lets us figure out with great precision what and when we were, and who we were with.

Google showing me all the bridges I’ve taken photos of, without me teaching it to. It even knew the lion was on a bridge.

Digital recall poses new questions

Perhaps the Grand Bargain of the Internet was that it would give us the superpower of a digital record of our lives, alongside the Kryptonite of letting everyone else see it.

Surely the true sociopaths will realize they’re being tracked and recorded early on, leading a life of innocence until they snap. And will we have to stay in our religious, social, and economic lanes for fear of public shaming and cancel culture?

Even the kind of sci-fi perfect recall we imagine—only for ourselves, subjective and truly personal—may be at hand. We know people can have perfect recall, and we can look at their DNA. If we can figure out what makes Peek and Henner special, might we then use genetic editing to bless our progeny with the ability to remember everything in their lives?

At this point we have to ask: Is recall a curse? Why did evolution not give us this ability with apparently limited side effects when we know it can? Surely there are significant downsides. 

Social cohesion

Perhaps collectively, the ability to forgive and forget tribal rivalries encouraged peace and prosperity. But today, we have laws and communication to encourage such things—or do we? Would society collapse when people, tribes, and nations couldn’t bury the hatchet in the sands of time?

Controllability

Would the person be able to control their recall, or have to sift through bad and good?

  • If recall were controllable, you could recall that moment you really wanted to quit smoking every time you had a craving; or flash back to the time you promised to get in shape every time you faced down a cake.

  • But if recall were not controllable, then your upbringing has a huge impact on your adult life. An unforgettable tragedy you’re forced to relive is a psychosis; an abusive father becomes a curse you can’t escape in the fog of time.

Maybe the reason we haven’t evolved perfect recall is that it only helps those with perfect beginnings, further widening the class divide into those who remember everything and those who dare not.


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