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We can remember it for you wholesale

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A day or two ago — I don’t remember exactly — I was disturbed by my inability to remember the name of Novak Djokovic’s opponent in the 2008 Australian Open final. I could picture him perfectly well: a dark-skinned Frenchman built like a tank, with an exotic non-Gallic-sounding name, that I could not recall, who I have seen play in at least a couple of dozen matches in the years since.

This has been happening more and more to me lately. My memory is going — I can feel it, Dave — and I indulge in various exercises to assure myself it hasn’t gone completely: Djokovic’s birthday is May 22, 1987 (Or is it May 15? Andy Murray’s is either the 15th or the 22nd of that month and year and I can’t remember which is which); Nadal’s is June 3, 1986; Federer was born in August, 1981, and Serena Williams the next month, but I can’t remember the exact dates, and so on.

We, at a stroke, perceive three cups lying on a table; Funes would see all the shoots and clusters and fruit comprised by a vine. He knew the shapes of the southern clouds at dawn on April 30, 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the streaks on a book of Spanish cover that he had seen only once and with the swirls on the foam raised by an oar in the Río Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho.

That is from Jorge Luis Borges’s strange and disturbing story “Funes the Memorious,” about a boy who falls from a horse, is paralyzed, and discovers that his memory is now total: he forgets nothing that he has ever seen or thought.

Gmail and the IPhone now offer all of us something analogous:

At the societal level, ample personal data storage poses a serious problem, because there’s an incentive to privatize our cluttered, poorly organized information into individual silos instead of building public infrastructures for it. We think of the internet as having an overabundance of publicly accessible information. But perhaps it’s also causing us to file away our private selves. We have more public information than ever, but what if there is also less transmission of more personal information between people—especially between generations. What is lost if our digital heirlooms become inaccessible to close relatives? What is lost if estates do not donate prominent people’s cloud data to university archives?

I myself am an information hoarder. I recently had to upgrade my Google storage to 100 gigabytes, and I’m already inching closer to purchasing a new tier. My inbox is a disaster: nearly 200,000 emails, read and unread, dating back to my college years. The last label I created? “Summer internship applications.”

My photos are a hodgepodge of my personal life mixed in with 2,734 screenshots—mostly of tweets or paragraphs of articles that my past self apparently felt might be worth returning to. Across my various cloud-based notes apps, I store endless tossed-off lists and musings, copy-paste fragments, and links. It’s all an attempt at off-loading the deluge of information I’m confronted with each day into a kind of external memory. In theory, this is exciting and useful. In practice, I am not confident it makes me any smarter or more productive or even better informed. Occasionally, I find myself barely pausing to think about something important I’ve read, and instead, filing it away to think about it later. One effect of my external memory is that it pushes me to consume faster and in higher quantities.

I know I’m not alone. In a paper published in 2019 in the journal World Psychiatry, titled “The ‘Online Brain’: How the Internet May be Changing Our Cognition,” the researchers suggest that “the Internet is becoming a ‘supernormal stimulus’ for transactive memory—making all other options for cognitive offloading (including books, friends, and community) become redundant, as they are outcompeted by the novel capabilities for external information storage and retrieval made possible by the Internet.”

That is from a very interesting essay about how the internet is changing our relationship to information and memory, which you should read, or at least bookmark for “later,” as Ricky Ray Rector once said.

It contains this melancholy quote from the technology writer and theorist L.M. Sacasas, about scrolling through the photographs of his children on his IPhone:

They’re growing up so fast, and you want to document where they’ve been along the way. Paradoxically, in my experience anyway, I think I’ve almost found that having this very pervasive record, visual record of their growth, has made that actually a more pronounced experience, a greater sense of things slipping by, slipping away.

The internet, like God, is everywhere and nowhere; it is changing, in ways we can barely even begin to imagine, our relationship to knowledge, to memory, to ourselves.

Among the works that I have not written and will never write (but that somehow justify me, in however mysterious and rudimentary a way) there is a short story, some eight to ten pages long, whose copious draft is entitled “Funes the Memorious.” . . . Of the magical compadrito of my story I can state that he is a precursor to supermen, a suburban, incomplete Zarathustra; what cannot be denied is that he is a monster. I have remembered him because a straight, uninterrupted reading of Ulysses’s four hundred thousand words would require similar monsters. . . Ulysses — everyone knows it — is the story of a single day, within the perimeter of a single city. In this voluntary limitation, it is legitimate to perceive something more than an Aristotelian elegance: it can legitimately be inferred that for Joyce every day was in some secret way the irreparable Day of Judgment; every place, Hell or Purgatory.

Borges, “Fragment on Joyce,” published in the magazine Sur, May, 1941

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