Happy 4th. And thoughts on memory.

Today is an odd day, 4th of July in middle of the week, so not enough time to go anywhere, but also I find myself not alone on a Wednesday which changes my normal routine. Big whup, what’s the point? Well, it means I don’t have the time to concentrate on my posts today, so I thought I’d just whip something out based on the news. But there is no news (Higgs is hardly news after all the leaks).

So then I thought I’d write about my best ever 4th of July. As I tried to recall, well, ur, not only could I not come up with “best” I was having trouble coming up with any. Just tiny fragments: a) fireworks at Yellowstone CC in Billings, b) scary fireworks in Oklahoma City, too young to remember much, except somehow a trellis sticks in my mind, c) walking to fireworks in Palo Alto, d) fireworks somewhere in Ohio with LDH, e), [oh, now something popped up just as I was writing] fireworks and music on the Esplanade in Boston, esp. when the barge shooting the fireworks blew up, f) [another just popped up] working late near Marriott Great America park in Santa Clara with Tam in the VW and so many cars invaded my company’s parking lot as place to watch, g) very dim memories (really young) of a dude ranch in New Mexico with parents, contests for kids included trying to get a Life Saver on a string between two kids’ mouths (how can I have such a strange memory), h) private fireworks display in LarryLand with Nancy, i) [another popped up while proofreading] getting poor ole Tam (a dog) drunk since she always panicked over fireworks, j) [amazing, another popped up, strange how associations work] Tam’s first 4th when we went to party and left her at home and kid next door terrorized her with fireworks leading to lifetime fear, which is why I tried getting her drunk to calm her down. That’s all I can recall now, interesting how just writing (and later proofing) these down triggered some “lost” memories.

And so finally I have a point for this post. In Dr. Dennis’ post there is reference to “Second Brain” and how, in the future, we may allocate memories to cyber-memory and organic-memory. Huh! I wish I could decide what memories I have and what I don’t, or even that I can recall them all on demand. Nominally I’ve experienced 60+ 4th’s of July, yet as list above demonstrates I can only recall a few. Now I doubt this is because most of them were so ho-hum there is nothing to remember (maybe 10-20, but not 50 of them). So before being exposed to computers at all, or later to social media I still haven’t managed to retain these memories, and thus how might digital_nation change any of this.

So I’ll go down a different path on this. While we don’t need either a computer or social media (mere pencil and paper would do fine) we really should record all our life’s events, even down to trivial stuff (like each 4th of July) because who knows when you may want to recall all this and human memory just isn’t good enough. Often I’ve wished I had recorded the names of people I worked with over the years. In some cases, today, I can recall their faces and recall what we worked on together, but not their names. There have been thousands and every now and then I’d like to be able to recall one of them. There is no way I can do that without assistance. And hundreds of relatively significant events in my life are just the faintest hint of memory. [Another question is, so what, who cares, why bother with memories, but that’s a future post]

Now for years I did do journals (who knows where they are now) but there are a lot of drawbacks to those, including having some noisy person read them. I also wrote my own journal program which I diligently tried to use. That triggered, at the time, the idea of how to preserve digital records over long time, in particular across technology change. Unfortunately I never pursued that idea so it turns out my digital journal is just as lost as my paper ones since, in fact, it is stored on media I can no longer read and since it was my own proprietary format unreadable by any modern software even if I could read the media.

So unfortunately this means even the limited parts of my life I did record on external media are lost as well. So can we do better (and should we)? Is social media any help?

Surprisingly, despite my relatively little use of Twitter I can actually recalls some memories simply by looking at some of my oldest tweets. Had Twitter existed since the day I was born (a true statement for many future citizens) it might be a very fragmentary and incomplete record but it also might well be the best overall record of my life, certainly a kind of timeline I could hang other digital memories, like the scaffolds used in genome sequencing. Now, OTOH, if I’d been trying to do a blog post a day, that would be a completely different snapshot, more content but probably not very related to internal stuat. And if I used Facebook, yet another snapshot, perhaps a bit more personal.

Since all these are public we’d probably (or really shouldn’t) record our innermost thoughts, but how good would it be, just these three sources, for any of us to recreate in our mind a model of where we were at as a person, say 15 years ago, by reviewing a few months of these recorded tidbits, and, then, perhaps, could we fill in the gaps, from organic memory, and reconstruct even more.

So having wandered down this path, I say Right On (kiddies, that used to be a cool expression, now used to date old-timers, as your expressions will date you to your kids). I think everyone should record as much as they can in as many places as they can because your organic memory is so limited this will be your only record. And, you will want to reconstruct these memories some day (btw, think about all those digital images you’re piling up, do you think you’ll have any of those 50 years from now. OTOH, my mother has actual photos, still usable, of numerous of the significant events in her life. You remember the birth of your baby you shot with that analog camcorder that doesn’t work any more – poof, dust, some record, eh).

Now I’ll get geeky and just briefly address a point I thought of 15 years ago while writing code for my own journal and that was how to preserve it over time. Digital media is incredibly frail over time. I have tons of now utterly useless backups over more decades than most of digital_nation has been alive, but none of this can be recovered. And even if by some magic I could read the media (much of it has probably actually degraded, digital stuff is also fragile that way as well), whatever information it is is spread over multiple types of file systems, now obsolete, so it might not even be possible to identify individual files. And if the files can be found how many of them are in some complex format (say, from my old original Mac II MSWord) that no program running today could read.

And then if I start using social media, I have the issue of whether it will be alive. Does anyone really believe that Twitter and its archives will still exist in 50 years? Not a chance. Will these posts on WordPress.com still be recoverable somewhere? Or if you store files in the cloud, SkyDrive, Dropbox, etc., you really think those companies will exist in 50 years? You think a large storage system of today could actually still be functioning 50 years from now? Or even if you can get it to turn on, is there anything you could attach it to?

Human writings with “old” technology have proven to be remarkably durable. Books from 100, 200, 500, even 1000 years ago can be read today. Even older artifacts are preserved, albeit in tiny fragments of history, from multiple millennia. You think even something seemingly durable like a DVD will last as long as a clay tablet or even somehow if it does there will be anything that can decode it 3000 years from now (in case you didn’t know there are lots and lots of ways to actually stores 0s and 1s so decoding the signal at the hardware level is not as simple as you might think).

So simply put, right now recording your life in your own digital media or on social media means absolutely nothing in terms of having those records 50 years from now when you might actually be interested in them, in one of your nostalgia moments of advanced age.

I’ve been down this thought path before and actually thought about this as a startup business. The trick is that when technologies change there is a brief time in which the old devices/media can be attached to a new computer and the contents transferred to new devices/media. Furthermore, most software can usually read its own files a few generations back and save in newer format. So any long-term storage, say the entire lifetime of a person, requires this dynamic process of probably at least every 10 years or so converting all the old records into new ones. And all the while doing a great job of backups since that’s yet another fragility of all this (you think the “cloud” solves this, ask Netflix how good that worked last week). This is a hard, but solvable technical problem.

But the real trick is some institution has to do this work, constantly upgrading their technology and porting old stuff into new technology. And guess what – that costs a lot of money. So how is this going to happen. Now, kiddies, you really think Twitter can afford to do this, FOR THE NEXT 80 YEARS! without some revenue base. How many companies are still around after 80 years? How would you pay for this, some annual subscription, obviously that would have to increase year by year since the quantity of stuff you have grows? What would it cost if someone created a trustworthy company that could survive all the technical, economic, political, and natural disasters with your records intact? And if such a company appeared tomorrow and gave you realistic plans for how they’ll do all this and how they’ll pay for it, would you trust them? Is there any company today that is sufficiently trustworthy you’d turn over your life’s records to them? Just to keep them properly and securely, not to mention that they won’t misuse them in some way you’re find unacceptable? Such a service doesn’t exist, and, frankly I think there are very serious barriers to it ever existing.

So the simple answer is today’s social media simply is not that long-term memory you may want. So if you want to have memories you think you want to save for a long term, get a nice journal and a safe deposit box at bank you hope will still be in business in 80 years. And, forget about images, because with the death of film I’m not sure there is any archival media (and if there is I will bet it’s very expensive) so you can look at your wedding photos on the unlikely chance you make it to a golden anniversary. But do your best because once memories are gone, they are gone. They’ll be gone in 200 years anyway (even if you turn out to be someone really important) but you won’t care, but perhaps sometime before you turn into dust you may want those memories.


About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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