In Proust’s famed novel, sometimes translated as In Search of Lost Time, the main character, Marcel, performs a nearly miraculous memory trick. By simply dipping a madeleine cookie in tea and tasting it, he triggers a recollection so powerful that it transports him in time, bringing a piece of his childhood into being. And so he reclaims lost time…and experience
In our digital age, we seem more obsessed than ever with preserving our immediate experiences. Yet, we also seem equally unwilling or unable to commit these new encounters to memory. Our natural reflex is to reach for our digital devices to take quick photos, make notes, and send texts, to capture the experience and to defer its consumption for a later time. It's as though these devices were an extension of ourselves. More and more, we rely on them to document our everyday and to mediate our personal memories.
You could say we live in the age of perfect remembrance. Our devices capture everything and the web preserves everything. The internet is a repository for our lives: a place to store memories and to locate other people's memories, too. The layers of our past accumulate there--old accounts in defunct media platforms, mundane emails from yesteryear, candid photos taken by third parties, lapsed information dislocated from context--a burdensome trail of archived memory data. This archival box gives us a certain comfort in knowing that we can always retrieve and reconstruct our memories, but are these really memories or simply digitized memory data? And can we leave any of it in the past, if we wanted to?
Memories aren't just about recalling singular details, but about making connections within a complex network of information and experience. What happens to our capacity to remember if we let devices do our remembering for us? Are we paying attention in the same way as we did before or will we, before long, find ourselves in search of our lost memory?
One thing is certain, our digital ways are disrupting the workings of our memory as we know it. So, we might need to learn anew how to remember and how to forget.