Time Machine: Technology Is Giving Us Memories Like Never Before

I know more about myself now, than I ever imagined; more than any person in history would have imagined for himself or herself. I remember every single detail now.

As I pressed “play” on my simulation, I saw them flabbergasted with awe – those young minds, seeing first hand, the power of data. There I was, after my hour-long lecture on Digital Storytelling to young high-school students, showing them my FourSquare Time Machine visualization. Then FourSquare, now Swarm, is a social media network where you can “check-in” to any location using your Smartphone, for offers & specials from stores and restaurants, gain loyalty points and simply compete with your friends for bragging rights and narcissistic reasons. Time Machine was a FourSquare plug-in that basically mapped out every single check-in of mine in the past four years.

It told me that I had spent a significant portion of my college years in academic spaces like classrooms, libraries, and social spaces like coffee shops. That set of realities changed in my life, after I turned twenty-one (the legal drinking age in my country). FourSquare Time Machine told me I was spending most of my time in professional spaces like offices, and even more time in bars, pubs and nightclubs. They were not wrong – I know for sure the time spent at bars was pretty accurate! It hit me.

With the right amount of data gathering, statistical analysis and visualization I was soon making graphs, box plots and frequency distributions from all the data I was “leaving behind.” I graphed my credit card usage over six months and mapped out how much I spent on food, clothing and luxury goods. It taught me a lesson for sure – drink less, eat healthier and, I just don’t need so many darn shoes! I got so interested in analyzing myself, I decided to buy a Jawbone, to measure how many steps I was taking each day, how well I was sleeping and how healthy I was eating – not very well, unfortunately. Here I was, geeked-out about Big Data analysis. For once in my life, I thought statistics was cool. And that’s because I realized it was helping me remember. It was helping me create memories – vivid, detailed memories.

Conventionally, collective memories are those held by a group of people. And ideally, as the definition of the word “memory” can attest to, it is passed on through sharing. But I argue that it is not the conventional collective memory that we are passing on in today’s day and age. It is the memory we share with the extensions of us – the extensions being our Smartphones, computers, credit cards and whatnot. The collective group is comprised of us, and all the data we leave behind. In essence, our collective group is our technology and us.

These collective memories are very similar to, but at the same time very different from, one of the oldest forms of memory creation and cultural transference – oral histories. It befuddles me how far we have come. From listening to stories from my grandmother about her life growing up and the few of many stories she remembers, sharply contrasted with the way I picture telling my grandchildren about my younger days. My stories will be filled with excerpts from my blog, photos from my “selfie a day” series and detailed records from my GPS feed, mapping my every single move, every day, every hour, every second. 

The fascinating thing about collective memory is that it is based on history. It is what we remember and how much of it we remember. But, what if, through technology, we can not only remember everything, but also analyze and understand it in ways we never imagined. We can recollect very little, but remember a lot. This may seem antithetical to the definition of “memory,” but it is true in our modern world. Scientists call it “Big Data.” Collecting large sets of data, and crunching all the numbers to make a meaningful analysis. And this number crunching tells stories – stories that tell us about us today. Which in turn, will be history some day. And history becomes one detailed collective memory.       

Scholars call it culturomics – the study of culture through big data. We are making strides in social science and humanities because of the technological advancements in Big Data and the statistics behind it. It is this collection of data, data crunching and inferring meaning from it that formulates our modern collective memory. If collective memory is how groups memorialize and pass on information through history, then technology is not only making it easier to collect collective memory to write more vivid and better collective memories, but also enhancing the amount of history we collect.

Photo: Shutterstock

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