Remember When It Was Easy to Remember?
Google's great—but only our memories can keep our life stories straight.
Posted May 6, 2016
There’s a lot of talk these days about how our memories are under siege. Technology’s making us stupid. The concern is that now that we’re all packing search engines in our pockets, we don’t need to remember as much as we used to. Why remember it if we can always Google it? Our memories are thus atrophying, some worry.
That’s one reason to be nervous. Another is that some believe that our “transactive memory systems” are becoming extinct. A transactive memory system is when two or more people draw on a shared memory archive. If one person doesn’t know or can’t recall something, there’s someone else around to fill the void. Once upon a time, that’s how we remembered a lot of things. The first line of inquiry was to query another human being. The late Jean Stafford, who in her waning years reviewed books for Esquire, told me how great it was to have someone in the house—her husband, journalist A. J. Liebling, also a terrific writer—who knew everything about everything. Whenever Stafford needed a piece of information for a story she was working on, she’d walk over to the foot of the stairs and holler up: “Hey, Joe! What’s such-and-such or who was so-and-so?” The answer came thundering down.
Back in the day, the interface was person to person, not person to Siri. What one person couldn’t remember, someone else in the transactive memory system could. Your mother and father holding memories of you comprised a small-scale transactive memory system. Multiple generations of a family living in close proximity and maintaining daily contact, pooling their memories, preserving those memories through the telling of stories, added up to a more extensive transactive memory system. You don’t know? Ask Pawpaw. (But ask loudly.)
Trouble is, we no longer live within shouting distance of multiple generations. We also no longer live in tribes, a tribe being an even larger transactive memory system than a family. We do live in brand tribes, but I doubt that my fellow Mac users can tell me where exactly in Belorussia my mother’s side of the family hails from. Other than “somewhere in Russia” in the case of my mother’s side, “somewhere in Austria” in the case of my father’s, I have no idea where I come from. But I wish I did. It would make my life story far more meaningful if I could place it in a longer-term historical context. If, say, I knew I hailed from the steppes of eastern Russia and someone in my bloodline had fought valiantly against the invading Mongol hordes, it would make me feel more—more what? Connected to time’s infinite arc, or something like that. The ever-grim philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, “To our amazement we suddenly exist, after having for countless millennia not existed; in a short while we will again not exist, also for countless millennia. That cannot be right, says the heart.” If I knew I dated back to the ancient steppes, I might feel less like I’m just breezing through. But there’s no one left to ask. The only recourse is to go online, which I’ve done. Genealogy sites don’t reveal much, so I’m reduced to gathering crumbs of information I run across in history books and biographies of those who were decidedly not relatives of mine. Freud and Stalin, for example. Thanks to books about their life stories, I assume that my father’s family wound up in Austria at the end of the nineteenth century as part of the wave of immigration that originated in Russia, Hungary, and the Balkans. It’s a start. As for my mother’s side, I still don’t know whether her people came from Minsk or Pinsk, though I at least know where Minsk and Pinsk are, thanks to Google Maps.
It’s only fair, however, to say that technology giveth and taketh. It may induce atrophy but it also jars memories loose. The other day I decided to listen to the score from Richard Rodgers’s Victory at Sea, the TV series that ran in the early fifties on NBC. My father and I never missed an episode; in retrospect, a highly meaningful bonding experience. Thanks to technology, I found it on Spotify in just a couple of clicks. The instant the overture—“The Song of the High Seas”—came on, I was conveyed (convoyed?) immediately back to the house I grew up in. I saw the tuning knobs of the Philco TV in the living room. I saw the pull-down ceiling light in the little breakfast room, with the egg-shaped thing that adjusted the cord, the same fixture my father installed the day of his first heart attack. I saw our canary, Tweetie, pecking at the cuttlebone in the cage that stood in a corner of the room. All it took were the opening bars of Victory at Sea, which were right there at my fingertips.
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Lee Eisenberg is the author of The Point Is: Birth, Death, and Everything in Between. Details at LeeEisenberg.com.