We shape our tools, and afterwards…

In his provocative LARB piece on the intrinsic conservatism of machine learning, Cory Doctorow pointed me to “Instant Recall”, Molly Sauter’s lovely essay, about how the Web has given us “a suite of products and services to programmatically induce reminiscence.”

Apps like Timehop, which presents time-traveled posts from across your social media profiles, or Facebook’s “On This Day” Memories, are attempts to automate and algorithmically define reminiscence, turning the act of remembering into a salable, scalable, consumable, trackable product suite. As the work of memory keeping is offshored, Instagram by Instagram, to social media companies and cloud storage, we are giving up the work of remembering ourselves for the convenience of being reminded.

What’s going on, Sauter says, is that we are being algorithmically fed virtual ‘madelaines’ (those buttery cakes that when when dipped in hot tea were the catalyst for the memories that make up Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.) She contrasts this with psychologist Dan McAdams’s contention that remembering is a generative, creative process that is essential for a happy life. What’s important, McAdams argues, is

the creation and maintenance of life narratives, dynamically evolving situated performances that integrate lives in time, providing “an understandable frame for disparate ideas, character, happenings, and other events that were previously set apart.” These stories are subject to constant additive revision, as through living we continually add more material and revise the material available to us, rethinking and rewriting memories as we age. The process of remembering memories rewrites them, revises them, and this ability to re-envision ourselves is a central part of the creation of seemingly stable life narratives that allow for growth and change.

Sauter argues that if we were, somehow, to lose this ability “to both serendipitously and intentionally encounter and creatively engage with our memories, perhaps we would then also lose that re-visionary ability, leaving us narratively stranded amidst our unchanging, unconnected memories”.

It’s a great essay, well worth reading in full. What I like most about it is the way it reminds one of the deeper ways in which digital technology is changing us. “We shape our tools”, as one of Marshall McLuhan’s buddies put it, “and afterwards they shape us“.

In a way, Mark Twain was right when he said that “the older I get, the more clearly I remember things that never happened”.