“I have discovered a potion for memory and wisdom,” the Egyptian god of the underworld tells the King of Thebes in an exchange recounted by Plato. This “magic potion,” it turns out, is writing. Previously, stories and histories, facts and fables were passed on orally. Minstrels would commit to memory the whole of the story of Troy, for example, which Homer ultimately put to the page. This was challenging work, time consuming, and imprecise. Stories were liable to variation, and exaggeration. Heroes were perhaps overly exalted. Details, dates, even characters would change over time. Writing solved many of these problems, and perfected our ability to recall.
But the King of Thebes is not impressed. Writing will “introduce forgetfulness,” he says. People will no longer “practice their memory because they will put their trust in writing… instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own.” It is uncanny how his worries anticipate current critiques of technologies, which allow us to outsource cognitive duties and habits, and deactivate parts of our mind. “You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding,” the king declares. “[People] will imagine that they have come to know much, while for the most part they will know nothing.”
Lately, I have been thinking about this exchange with regard to images. How hard it must have been, in an age before cameras, to remember the face of a loved one who has passed away. Some would have their likeness engraved, and passed on between generations. Early cameras provided hazy, sepia-toned portraits, which could be hung over the mantelpiece like shrines. Recorded images were rare; they were also partial, and limited, depicting a person frozen in time from one vantage point, in one pose. They hardly captured the full sense of a man. Smartphones have corrected this—with a vengeance. We are practically drowning in images and hardly know what to do with them all.
This was made painfully clear to me when I recently had to free up space on my phone, which was no longer operable because it buckled under the weight of my stored photos (among other things). At first, I found many images easy to expunge. There were pictures of flowers I wanted to identify and plant at home; broken sinks and holes in drywall to alert and inform contractors; random grocery items relayed to my wife, to ensure I was making the right purchase; snarky billboards and bumper stickers shared with friends for a laugh. After the initial cuts, my job became much harder. What remained were images and videos of family and friends, mostly my children, some stretching back years to when they were quite small, capturing memorable moments and the cherished mundane in equal measure. Here was my son in his first game as lacrosse goalie, though you hardly see the ball, much less make out his face. Here was my daughter on the first day of school, behind the driving wheel, ready to take herself and her brother for the first time. And here was my oldest son in his graduation regalia, standing over his ninety-year-old grandparents. I took five pictures of this latter scene and couldn’t decide which was best. So I kept them all.
What will I do with all these pictures? What does anyone do with them? I could outsource them to an album, either digital or print. But then I think of the hidebound tomes gathering dust in my parents’ basement—or worse, the decks of slideshows from overseas vacations, dispatched long ago, but not before they had tortured unwitting dinner party guests. I hardly found time to consult these supposedly cherished ancient images, honored records of my family history. Would I do better with my current collection? Why keep them?
We are in an age of unprecedented data creation and collection. In 2018, the world’s population, armed with digital devices, produced 33 zettabytes of data—“the equivalent of 33 trillion gigabytes” (the average smartphone has 64 GB of data; the average laptop, 256 GB). This ballooned to 59 ZB during the pandemic, when we were ever more reliant on digital technology, “and is predicted to reach a mind-boggling 175 ZB by 2025.”
Data collection seems harmless enough. The pictures I keep no longer occupy physical space, cluttering up my home. They seem to reside in some spiritual realm, from which I can summon them at will, but storing them requires energy, and increasingly, we use a ton of it to hold onto data that we may sparingly use. The carbon footprint, many warn, is not sustainable. My son would have me outsource data storage to the cloud, as millions do already. But, according to Wired, the average data center, which hosts the cloud, “can consume as much electricity as a small city in order to power and cool its computing equipment.” One critic notes that “around 100 new hyperscale data centers are built every two years;” at our current rate of data creation and storage, in 110 years, “the power required to sustain this digital production will exceed the total planetary power consumption today.”
Which brings me back to my role in this unfolding catastrophe. Why can’t I dispense with my data more quickly, more easily—or at all? Why am I compelled to collect and hang on to so much? On one hand, this is a dumb question. It satisfies the human yearning to hang on to life that hurries by—so quickly, indeed, that we hardly have time to savor it in the moment. Naturally, I will want to freeze for posterity pictures of my children at cherished times and ages. Why would I want to forget any of that? There is guilt associated with the camera, you see: Because I can record, I should—I must. I must try to capture the present with this digital device.
Videos are the hardest to dispense with. And they take up the most space on my phone. But how could I delete the clip of my daughter singing (the briefest) of solos at her last chorus concert of high school? How could I erase the video of my sixteen-year-old son driving for the first time? Or footage of my ninety-year-old father addressing his nieces and nephews at a family reunion, for perhaps the last time? Never mind the fact that I have not, and may never, revisit these hallowed records.
I have often wondered about those parents who sit behind cellphones taping the entire chorus concert, hours long. Or the ones who hustle up and down the sidelines, the better to zoom in on their progeny dribbling the soccer ball. Will they ever watch these videos, in part or in whole? Who are these videos for? What are they for?
Recording is an act of reverence, I suppose. It’s our attempt to affirm that this moment here is important, or may be, and we can retain it, or at least revisit it—if we want. Do we ever fully appreciate the moment we find ourselves in? Do we ever recognize its impact and import? What we take for mundane may soon be consequential. Now we don’t need to miss out on it. Ever.
Except that remembering is also pathological, Friedrich Nietzsche reminds us. The urge to recall the past, retain it and relive it, is vain, foolhardy, and morally destructive. Memory is a form of penance and punishment, as Nietzsche puts it in The Use and Abuse of History for Life (1874), which weighs us down and clouds the soul. We should envy “the animal which immediately forgets and sees each moment really die, sink back into deep night extinguished forever… [The animal] does not know how to dissimulate, hides nothing, appears at every moment fully as what it is and so cannot but be honest.” Memory, meanwhile, “oppresses [man] and bends him sideways, it encumbers his gait like an invisible and sinister burden…”
Not everything is meant to be remembered. If we would hang on to everything with equal clarity, vitality, and urgency, how could we know what is of relative importance? How would we know what facts and events and narratives to privilege? Technology is of no help here. Actually, it is an encumbrance. Forgetting, Nietzsche insists, is healthy. It does essential work in culling the inessential, clearing the mind of debris that clutters it. I couldn’t possibly operate with data overload—much like our planet. Forgetting casts aside errant details and stories, and pushes me on in life—bravely, incessantly, naively at times, but in so doing, offers the possibility of seeing the world afresh.
He who cannot forget Nietzsche likens to a dyspeptic. A healthy body draws nourishment from foodstuffs and dispenses unsentimentally with the husks. A healthy mind does not chew over the past, but lets it proceed and move on. Forgetting is therapeutic. It is a relief to “shut the doors and windows of consciousness for a while” and rest, Nietzsche writes in On the Genealogy of Morality. And, in Untimely Meditations, he says that there is a “degree of sleeplessness, of rumination” characteristic of memory, which is “ultimately fatal to the living thing.”
Resentment, Nietzsche reminds us, is rooted in memory. He constantly draws attention to this fact by using the French word ressentiment. To resent is re-sentir—it is to feel something again, to live it anew. To resent is to thus be haunted—plagued—by memories that will not leave, but morph and grow, and distort the psyche. Resentment fixes one on past failings and perceived slights and makes one ever more miserable. This is disastrous for self and society. It turns one inward, makes one narcissistic, and unable to coexist with others or see them properly.
Forgetting is liberating, and ironically, offers self-control. It is an act of rebellion. We are compelled by all society to remember, and our peers tell us what we should memorialize, and how. Or worse, we are unsure, and cast the net widely, insecure that our commemoration is always insufficient. Forgetting delivers us to the present, to ourselves. It is the mark of a sovereign individual who recognizes that he “cannot change what happened in the past and so accepts—takes responsibility—for everything in his … past.” The compulsion to remember also includes an urge to influence the past, reconceive it. In reliving past moments, we glorify them, or regret them, and ensure they are not done, but endure, and may await further resolution and vindication.
Forgetting also takes courage. Struggles with my photo collection are evidence of this. I had to muster courage to destroy images, knowing they would be lost forever—these snapshots of childhood and a cherished past. When I erase them, I am making a definitive decision I will not relive those moments again. I am admitting the past is gone, or at least that part of it, that image of that moment. It cannot be regained, redeemed, or reformed. It is finished.
To forget is to embrace the human condition. We will forget all, sooner or later, and we will be forgotten—all that we have done and committed ourselves to, worried over, struggled a lifetime for. The trace of our existence is minute, if that. This does not need to be cause for despair. As the Stoics recognized centuries ago, this thought is liberating. It relieves the gravity and urgency and seriousness of life—my one life. I cannot resist its fleeting character. That is its nature.
For many years, I would repeat to myself favorite phrases from my Uncle Den, who died in the 1980s when I was only thirteen. This was my best way to remember him. We had no video recordings of Den. That technology was a rarity in the west of Ireland where Den lived. He did not even have a telephone or car on his small farm. Recalling his voice—its intonation, accent, lyricism—is how I hold onto him most truly. His voice, like his death, impressed me greatly at a young age. Fleeing our suburban condo for his simple farm was a culture shock, heightened by my uncle’s inscrutable accent that always took a few days to understand. When I did, I learned how his gruff veneer and mannerisms, at first intimidating, betrayed tenderness and humor. Though I still hear his voice faintly some forty years later, it is fading, and may soon vanish altogether. I am no longer sure I recall it faithfully. I am losing him.
How will we seek to venerate and recall—and relive—the dead in the future? What will technology allow and enable? Will we conjure loved ones as holograms, as we already do with some celebrities, making them seem to walk among us again? This may sound eerie, as do all innovations. It may even sound outrageous. Or we may become accustomed to it, as with everything else. And then we will demand even more. What will be the next frontier in memorializing the dead and clinging to—or restaging—the past? We will always think we can do better, and recapture and recreate it more faithfully, more perfectly.
We should resist the temptation. Recall the King of Thebes’ complaint: Technology does not help us remember. It only reminds. The former is self-driven. To be reminded is to be compelled by something beyond us. When I remember I do so through my own authority and agency. Something within me prompts me to recall. Which is another way of saying I have a good reason for remembering something.
Consider what makes certain memories valuable. Memories of my uncle are grounded in recollection of a particular summer when I was eight, staying on his farm, experiencing the small homestead from which my mother and her siblings immigrated, wondering at the fact that they had all fled. I felt a deep sense of pathos for the first time in my life, enhanced no doubt by the interminable mist, and the intense vegetation that encroached all around, threatening to bury it all. Memories of my uncle are rooted in regret that encounters with him were brief, and treasured for just that reason. And when I was next able to see him, he was already on his deathbed, and his familiar, distinctive gruffness was waning.
Memories are important because—and when—they are selective, and few. They are valuable because they are, like us, mortal and fleeting. We yearn to hold onto them because they are leaving, that is their nature. They are no longer memories if they are data, made permanent, stored somewhere in petrified and complete fashion to be consulted at leisure. Or not at all, which is more likely the case.
Memories are also much more than the two dimensions that cameras capture. They are sound and smell and touch. It turns out Freud and Proust had it right when they said that smell was a privileged sensation with respect to memory, bringing us back most vividly to a particular place and time. Indeed, it is the smell of my uncle’s house—with its peculiar combination of dampness and smoke, milky tea, cold floors, and frying bacon—that takes me back most fully. I am always taken by surprise when it seizes me. It is unbidden, unpredictable, uncontrollable—and therefore all the more to be cherished.