Memory

You have more of your memories stored online than all of your ancestors ever left behind. The future of memory is already here.

When I take picture of a really delicious chocolate bread pudding that I'm about to eat, I might upload it to share with tens, or thousands, of people. That photo, the memory of that pudding, exists in my brain, on my phone, on my computer (and its backup), on servers owned by Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Tumblr and Apple. And inside of the minds of everybody cursing me for showing them that, until they forget. We don't just have more (and more vivid) digital scraps of memory, they're scattered all over the world like nuclear fallout, where they're able to experienced by more people than ever. I didn't go to your party, but I saw 156 pictures of it on Facebook.

The first hard disk drive for personal computers was the ST-506, by Seagate. A 5.25-inch disk, it held 5MB of data and cost $US1500 in 1980. Today, a 2-terabyte, 3.5-inch Seagate Barracuda hard drive costs $US180. Depending on who you ask, the human brain holds between 10 and 100 terabytes. We now use the same unit of measurement to talk about how much data a hard drive can store that we use for our brains.

The quantity and the quality of data, our digital memories, is exploding: A RAW photo from a Canon 5D Mark II digital SLR consumes roughly 20 megabytes, or 4x the data that the original Seagate drive could hold. It's nearly 7x the size of the 2.7-megapixel photos taken by Nikon's D1 - introduced in 1999, it was the first digital camera that really started replacing film cameras at newspapers. mobile phones shoot photos 4x that large, and record high definition video now. Wilson has 40,000 photos, divided evenly between his cats and his child, in his iPhoto library. Adam has 120GB of music, half of which you've never heard of, on his computer. And the memories we record today, using millions of pixels, billions of bits, will seem just as grainy as the black-and-white photos our grandparents took when they were my age, compared to what's next.

My leaky brain will probably forget all about seeing your girlfriend spewing all over your sofa, watching a stray Roman candle fireball shoot past my friend's head after ricocheting off a log, and my yummy chocolate bread pudding, until I see them again, years later, the bits perfectly intact. Well, if they survive, anyway, and my computer's still able to decode the format they're stored in, rendering them into pictures and videos. A dead format, a defunct service, takes any memories it encodes with it. And if it's still around, it'll just be one drop in a pool of a million. In a sea of one million other photos, how am I going to find my chocolate bread pudding again? Oh, and what happens to all of that when I die and my brain becomes worm poop?

We live in a world where a memory, encoded in bits, flowing in a million directions, can live forever. Maybe that means we'll live forever. That's what we want to consider this week.

Memory [Forever] is our week-long consideration of what it really means when our memories, encoded in bits, flow in a million directions and might truly live forever.

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