Reading Anne Galloway's paper for a workshop on collective memory at CHI 2006, I disagreed with a particular choice of words: computers don't “remember”, they “store”. Galloway touches on this in a description of a previous discussion in which she “questioned if we were confusing what sensors and databases remember with what we normally call our personal and collective memories,” but goes to discuss machines as if they could indeed remember. I take an alternative view, and would like to discuss here some of the differences between memory and storage. This is undoubtedly a subject which has been discussed many times, but I wanted to record my thoughts before diving into existing opinions.
Storage can be seen as a way to convert time into space: consider a library's stacks of old newspapers, or an album of baby pictures. Moments are given form, so that one can say “1985 is in aisle 2” or “my first birthday party is in the brown book.” Digital stores, too, though their locations may be multiple or temporary, are accessed spatially, in the sense that we locate items by traversing a directory structure or scanning a page. This seems a straightforward property of an archive. What is often neglected, however, is that accessing this data means converting it back into time. When we look at a photo, listen to a recording, or watch a video, we are not remembering – we are experiencing. If we were to be always replaying everything we've done, we'd never do anything (I'm reminded of the poor amnesiac souls in a chapter of Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams who spend their days with their diaries, constantly writing and rereading their actions, thoughts, and feelings). That is, although storage is not memory, it does not escape forgetting. Instead, it shifts it to the instant of recall, as we decide what to retrieve when we retrieve it, rather than relying on the gradual subconscious shaping of our memories. We still forget, but we forget as the machines would have us do: by choosing which recordings to revisit and which to ignore.
But to return to the question at hand, what are the attributes that distinguish storage from memory? The first is precision: a high-quality recording contains vastly more details than a memory (they may not be relevant or accurate, but they're there). Another is disjointedness: we view data in pieces, usually presented uniformly and without relation to each other. There's little context: none of the rich and varied associations that accompany a memory. An item may have links, but it doesn't have connotations – not to the machine, anyway. Data is passive: it doesn't appear spontaneously, the way that memories may be triggered by unexpected encounters or specific sensations. The computer doesn't free associate, it parses, indexes, sorts, and retrieves. We decide what to ask for, what to look at, how much time to spend on it, just as we do with physical stores. In neither case does the archive understand its contents, much less their meaning. Rather, items are organized according to precise criteria: date and time of creation, size, hierarchies, links, etc. To access this information, we browse, search, navigate, retrieve – we don't remember.
Despite all the differences between storage and memory, the computer sometimes seems an extension of the brain. The more that it mediates our experience, the more we have an objective record to complement our memory. The more often we have access to these records, the less we need to remember. The faster we can retrieve a particular item, the easier it is to incorporate it into the flow of our thoughts, actions, and conversations. But in fact, the computer is not an extension of the brain but a prosthesis: artificial, augmentative, but also transformational. It gives us a choice: we can remember or we can retrieve. This choice affects our memory in subtle and manifold ways. If we hope to understand them, we must begin by acknowledging this difference between memory and storage and by seeking to understand its implications. The point is not to make our computers more like our minds, but to understand how they affect our memory and our thoughts.