Remember, Remember

Article published in Radio Times 17 September 2008

“Remember, remember” the Sunday Feature on Radio 3, 21 September 2008

Do you wish you had a better memory? That you could always recall people’s names? Well, be careful what you wish for. As I found out, when making Remember, Remember, modern technology may be changing our memories forever, and the effects may be more than we’ve bargained for.

In ancient Rome a lucky senator might have someone called the Nomenclator to whisper the names of people he met. Now Wendy Hall, at Southampton University thinks we’ll soon have a modern equivalent, in the form of glasses or a kind of hearing aid, to give us all those useful facts we’ve forgotten. Her colleague, computer scientist Nigel Shadbolt, thinks we’re at a critical turning point. We’re already outsourcing our memories to our mobile phones and SatNavs. Just imagine having plug-in memory stores for everything you can’t be bothered to learn!

But what about remembering your own life? I must admit I’ve always been a bit obsessed with memory. It’s not just that, as a psychologist, I want to know how memory works in the brain – I love to store my own memories. I began writing a diary in 1964 and have hardly missed a day since. My mother began hers in 1939 and my daughter keeps one too. I don’t really understand why, but it makes me a feel a little safer, or more confident, to know I can look up what happened.

Working on this programme I got them down from their dusty shelves. I laughed at the little sketches of ponies when I was twelve, and the pages decorated with tiny beetles – their significance only obvious when I read “I love Paul” or “bought four more packs of Beatle cards after school”. Moving on a few years are lists of exams, pining over boyfriends, and pages and pages of bringing up the kids, conferences and – yes – all my latest theories about how the mind works. But it’s a mere page of inadequate scribbles each day.

Would I like more? Much more? Would anyone want a complete record of their lives? As I found out, “lifeloggers” do. Some wear a device called a SenseCam, that hangs round their neck and takes a photo every thirty seconds. At the end of the day they review the pictures in fast mode. Until I tried it I thought this was a ridiculous gimmick, yet the effect is very strange. You soon forget you are wearing it, then when you review the pictures later on you remember little oddities that weren’t even recorded, like what you were thinking about as that cyclist went by. What a strange thought – that you might have ideas that you would normally forget but by reviewing your SenseCam you can get them back.

Emma Berry, at Addenbrookes’ Hospital in Cambridge, is hoping the SenseCam can help people with Alzheimer’s and severe memory loss. Although only a few patients have tried it, the effects are already dramatic. Reviewing their days over and over seems to help them remember significant events, enjoy conversations more, and even recall things that are not on the photos.

Meanwhile, Deb Roy, a computer engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is studying language learning by recording both video and audio of every moment of his young children’s lives. He told me of the odd effects on his family of being able to go back and check exactly what did happen – it’s not always what he thought he remembered. And Gordon Bell, one of the legendary figures of computer science, is trying to capture every aspect of his own life. In his “MyLifeBits” project everything is digitised – work, correspondence, e-mail, music, photos, and everything that can be scanned. He claims “one’s life can reside on a hard drive”; it’s “potential immortality”.

I pick up my Mum’s diary for 1946. They are about to move from their Nissen hut with the broken window, the RAF transport is late. She has permission to go to a village dance. I can smell the old ink, feel the rough pages, and smile at the sheet of old-fashioned blotting paper in the front. This couldn’t be digitally captured could it? What would potential immortality mean?

To my surprise, the man who knows best is Peter Gabriel, musician and founder of the band Genesis. Over lunch at his home in Wiltshire he told me his plans to create a social networking site for the dead. For the dead? Of course it’s really for the living, to preserve of themselves whatever they think worthwhile, but there’s more, he laughs, “you may want to send out birthday messages beyond the grave”. I realised this is far, far more than a fancy diary or huge photo collection. After I’m dead, a machine could send out messages that would be quite convincing to my friends.

If I am my memories who will I be in this strange new world?