Mechanical memory

carlton fisk Example one. I want to call a friend, so I look for the cellphone. Could use the cordless, but it doesn't know my friend's number, and the cellphone does. Except damn, can't find the cellphone. Better call it. So I reach for the cordless. Except double damn, can't find it either. Better page it. So I go to the cordless's base, page the cordless, locate it, call the cellphone, locate it, and call my friend.

Example two. I want to cite the movie Memento in this blog entry, because example one reminds me of Guy Pearce in that movie, without any short-term memory, tattooing reminders on his skin and annotating Polaroid snapshots. Except damn, I can't remember the movie's name, or Guy Pearce's last name, but I do remember he was in L.A. Confidential, so I ask for his filmography and that leads me to Memento.

Example three. I'm in Cambridge, MA one evening, and I wander into the WordsWorth bookstore in Harvard Square. The New Yorker's octagenarian baseball writer, Roger Angell, is there for a lecture and book-signing. I attend the lecture. Someone asks: "What's the biggest change you've seen in your lifetime?" Angell answers: "Without a doubt, television." He says instant replay has undermined our ability to perceive and to remember. And he relates a remarkable conversation with Carlton Fisk, whose epic home run in game 6 of the 1975 World Series is probably one of the most replayed sports moments ever. I'm not much of a baseball fan (though it's odd how the subject keeps coming up lately), but even I've seen that clip dozens of times: Fisk dancing up and down, waving the ball fair. So anyway, Roger Angell says he asked Fisk, in an interview, how many times Fisk has seen that clip. And Fisk says he's hardly ever seen it, maybe just a few times. When it comes on TV, he leaves the room to avoid watching it, because he doesn't want to overwrite the original memory in his head with a different version.

We all like to joke, nowadays, about how Google has become humanity's collective memory, and we're properly grateful not to have to remember a lot of things that we know we can just look up. We've gone through this before, of course. Pre-Gutenberg, we routinely memorized vast amounts of verse. Then we learned to offload chunks of memory to print. Now we're learning to offload a whole lot more memory to the Net. I'm not saying I'd have it otherwise, but sometimes I wonder about the tradeoffs we're making.

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