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For the Memories (by Paul W. Smith)

Ancient Scribe

Memory is not to be trusted.  It is unpredictable, frustratingly fleeting, and only gets worse with age.  It will forever cling tightly to useless facts and yet misplace the freshest, most essential ones.  I can remember my childhood phone number, the tune and lyrics to Let It Be, and most of the Gettysburg Address, and yet I can’t seem to recall the office computer password I reset last week.  I doubt that I am alone in this. 

Memory is such a crucial element of our very existence, so why are we so poor at remembering things?  We should have plenty of storage space; anywhere you search you will find that the human brain contains 100 billion neurons, although when pressed on this number, scientists can’t seem to remember where it came from. 

It is tempting to believe that this memory-fail has a lot to do with the flood of information coming our way, making it increasingly difficult to find a suitable clearing in that vast forest of brain cells.  But this is a problem that pre-dates the flood; the challenge of recollection is as old as recorded history.

The de facto means of remembering has always been to write stuff down, although as students of the canonical gospels would attest, even this is not perfect.  Written memory aids are ancient; the pigment ocher has been identified on the walls of South African caves and dated to 164,000 years ago, but archaeologists can’t be sure if it was used for writing, or as mosquito repellent.  Identifiable animal drawings, which could be a way of remembering either a food source or a predator, have been found in Indonesian caves that date back 35,400 years.  Egyptian tombs from 2000 B.C. have intelligible writing on their walls with, among other things, detailed instructions for making cheese.  You’d hate to finally take up residence in the afterlife only to discover there are no good Gouda recipes.

As it has with many things that are integral to our culture, innovation has propelled the art of recording information ever onward.  From cave walls to hand-written parchment documents to Gutenberg’s printed pages, humans have continued to find new and sometimes better ways to record things that might otherwise be forgotten.  Hand-copied documents were painstakingly difficult to reproduce, and thus were presumed to be of superior value.  In an age where storage is vast and instantaneous, much less thought is given to what we keep.  If you doubt that to be true, just search Facebook for cat pictures. 

These days digital storage dominates how we set aside information for later recall, and it has progressed at a phenomenal rate.  In the early fifties, while I was learning to walk, the first disk drives were humming away in IBM laboratories, storing around 5 megabytes of data.  Today my smartphone houses a chip smaller than a dime that holds 128000 megabytes.  It is estimated that globally we will stash 44 zettabytes of data annually by 2020.  Once upon a time, it was an insult to say someone had their “head in a cloud”; now we all do. 

It is no wonder that our obsession with memory has enabled this explosion of virtual-mental storage space.  In many ways, memory is what defines us as individuals, setting us apart from our peers and putting our lives in meaningful context.  It guides our decisions, enriches our relationships and confirms our existential selves.  These are times when electromechanical devices can reinforce our declining senses and substitute for failed body parts; why shouldn’t we be turning more to technology to fortify our befuddled brains? 

In countless ways we are what we remember.  The lessons learned, the pages read, the art contemplated and enjoyed, the loves and heartaches experienced – recalling them is what shapes our being.  Perhaps memory tools can help reclaim a portion of lives lost to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease?  Perhaps the cure for these tragic losses of memory lies not in repairing or propping up those 100 billion or so neurons, but in bypassing them completely and putting all that we have experienced into a safe, reliable holding place, to be recalled randomly at will, much as we were accustomed to doing in better days?

Probably not.  There will always be some things that technology can never replace.

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Author Profile - Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development.

Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”.  

Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.