Wireless Technologies

Rant: We're Losing Our Memories

Contemplating my mortality one rainy Sunday afternoon, I started to think about what I'm leaving to my children. Which quickly led to the realisation that if I don't make some changes soon, the answer will be "Not a lot".

All my personal information is digital these days. Bank account logins, diaries, photos, half-finished future best-selling novels, videos, emails, letters, work history, my thank-you speech for the Best Screenplay Oscar I'll be winning one day, excruciating details of my embarrassing love affairs... all of it stored as a bunch of ones and zeroes. And all of it encrypted, with passwords that only I know. If I peg it tomorrow due to some kind of freak canoeing accident, my kids will never have a clue about my work, my experiences, my loves, dreams and desires, the rich and varied tapestry of my life. Which is a huge relief, naturally, but it got me thinking about our brave new digital world and how transient it's become.

Persistence! It's vanishing even as I write this. Typewriters have become an endangered species, fountain pens are relics of a bygone era. Love letters have crumbled into dust, replaced with crude, staccato emails and texts. Why bother with postcards when you have Skype? Our bookshelves are firewood, relegated by the ubiquity of little grey screens whose contents can be wiped remotely by booksellers. Where's the romance in that?

It's the same with music: vinyl has vanished outside of a small group of enthusiasts, but its replacements have become ever more transient over the decades. CDs decay, tapes rot, downloads can be deleted on a whim.

It's getting worse. Newer forms of communication such as Snapchat are designed from the ground up to have no persistence at all. And now Google's been ordered by the EU to 'delete' personal histories on request. Other large sites are bound to comply. I can see the benefit of that ruling, of course. One of the traits that keeps us sane is our ability to forget. If all our mistakes are writ large forever, it'll be hard for us to move on, to develop as humans and grow through acceptance of our fallibility. But it adds to the loss of persistence.

What are we leaving behind as a society? Wartime love-letters have endured for decades, vinyl records from half a century ago are still playable today, cave paintings have been dated at tens of thousands of years old. And what do we have now? A bunch of arcane file formats that change so often it'll be amazing if the digital citizens of 2020 will be able to read half of them.

Think I'm kidding? Think again. Given the rate of change of technology, anything digital created more than 10 years ago is likely to be extremely hard to retrieve. If it's more than 20 years old, forget it. I speak as someone who spent several days in the late 1990s transferring his old computer programs from the once-ubiquitous school computer, the BBC Micro, to a PC running emulation software. It was time consuming and complex back then, probably impossible now. Ten years ago almost every PC came with a floppy drive. Today? None.

The internet archive is a valiant effort at preserving old web content, where 'old' in this case can mean anything from 12 months ago to the musty antiquity of the late 1990s. But it's sparse, incomplete and unable to cope with some dynamic, server-generated content. It provides a glimpse, nothing more. And anyway, it's all stored as microscopic magnetic dipoles on fragile spinning platters in someone else's server room at the other end of an ethereal connection halfway around the globe. One big EMP and it's gone.

What will future historians learn about our society if we crash and burn like the Incas, Mayans and countless other civilisations since the dawn of time? Probably not much. It'll look like we stagnated sometime in the early 21st century. Books stopped being published, magazines died out, literacy waned, music vanished, then nothing. Given the biodegradable/recyclable nature of computing hardware today, only a few museum relics might survive, and they'll be of no use without the skills to work them. Having grown up in England, Britpop will have been the peak of my cultural heritage, crumbling Oasis and Blur CDs littering the barren landscape. Tony Blair the last UK prime minister? Enough said.

Maybe history is just repeating. Perhaps the Mayans had mobile phones and Easter Island was a server farm. For all we know the Incas had an advanced silicon-based digital culture and social networking tools, but half a millennium later all that remains is some impressively-tessellating stonework that, if we knew how to use it, would reveal a status update from a teenager boasting about getting to third base with the high priest's daughter on the top of Machu Picchu.

I'm not taking any chances. I'm going to write a letter to my children, using nothing more complex than a sheet of paper and a fountain pen. If I can still remember how.


Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business called Ministry of Prose.


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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