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Memories are in bytes and Mind Palaces are subscriptions

Lots of scrambled signals

Time is unidirectional or if not, at least we feel it is. This gives rise to memories since we can reconstruct the past but not the future. If memories were merely information, it should be possible, in principle, to digitise and preserve them completely. Indeed, there can be no doubt that digitisation has had a significant impact on memories and also on the business of memorising. We have gained the ability to record our lives and our knowledge with ever finer fidelity, whether in the form of text, audio, pictures, video or a more immersive sensory experience. We can replay those artifacts. But pending the digitisation and playback of our emotions, we still have to rely on our brains to make us feel how we felt. I wrote earlier that music had the ability to help us remember more intimately, and this had to do with the deep connection between music and memories.

But while the association between music and memories is well documented, there is an aspect that is perhaps overlooked. There was a time when music was an active choice in the foreground, a conscious and intended part of the narrative of the time. It was more than just a playlist that played as we multitasked. Music was the radio jockey telling the story of how a particular song came to be. It was the insistent friend at a party making sure to play his favourite song and then making everyone else “ooh” and “aah” at the right points during the song. It was the joy of opening out the folded liner notes wedged in the tape case, or later in larger print in a CD case, and then reading them cover to cover, and relating them to the music as it played. Now, music is going for a run with headphones on. Recently, I came back from a jog and was shocked to see the playlist paused on track 9, and yet I could barely remember hearing anything beyond track 2! Like a rolling stone, what memories can we attach to something that is itself without anchor?

Music is not alone in feeling the effects of digitisation. Text is not far behind. The advent of the written language was a significant milestone for communicating and preserving our knowledge, since text reduces the amount of knowledge that must be actively held in memory by any individual. Duly, it has been observed that cultures without writing have a more sophisticated range of memory techniques. But now digitisation seems to be an even more significant milestone — dispensing with the physical bulk of text and the constraints of its distribution. But it hasn’t necessarily made it better. In fact, it has been found several times that e-books are not as effective as print in helping readers to learn and retain. And it seems this is mostly for want of memory anchors. The inability to go 3 pages back and look at the top third of the left side page to quickly check for something, is felt by many a reader of digital content, having instead to contend with a reference-less long vertical stream. It is quite easy to scroll through several lines of text, without really absorbing what they said.

But why is this happening? It is not that digital content cannot lend itself to association. The problem may lie more in its ubiquity — the ability to get anything, any time and anywhere. Not long ago, a playlist used to be a construct of radio programming which only music jockeys could produce. Now pretty much every song is online and at our fingertips and so are entire dictionaries, encyclopedias, books, video tutorials to do pretty much anything, and more. By removing the constraints on what could be accessed when and where, we have unwittingly managed to strip the context out of music listening and reading. In digitizing music and text, we have seen storing, sharing and retrieving documents as a constraint. But in reality, for thousands of years until now, the space, time and context of listening or reading have aided our minds in understanding and consuming the music or text. These cues have disappeared in the digitized world, leading to memories not sticking.

Interestingly, even the word “memory” itself evokes different images now than it used to. It is not the dusty old photo album in the loft that comes to mind, but rather the amount of storage space available on a flagship smartphone. It’s the computers that have memories nowadays and not people because they sort of, don’t need to. I met a friend recently after a gap of over 11 years, and yet strangely, I merely thumbed through my phone to summon high-definition photographic recollections of what we had been up to 11 years ago. At one time, we might have needed music to highlight and stimulate our memories. But even 11 years ago, we were already recording our lives in hi-fi. Not only have we stripped the context out of the music, but we have freed music from the need to carry it!

While the association between memories and music was a long one, we are only at the threshold of how things will turn out in the future. The ubiquitous availability of digital content has made us a bit sloppy in absorbing it. We can always hit rewind or read it again without the fear or burden of having to lug along a physical record or book collection. Assuming our phone is charged. And it’s in coverage. And our subscriptions are paid. The truth is we really see digital content as our appendage — something that should be always available to us, without which we would feel crippled. I think this really sums up what we have gained and lost. And there is no going back now. Time only moves forward. Memories are in bytes, and mind palaces are subscriptions.