“What are your earliest memories”, you ask – and I look back, and pictures flood in.
A picture of me next to a bridge, scarcely as tall as the culvert I am standing next to, with some wonderfully vintage cars in the background.
A picture of me with my parents, furiously glum because they wouldn’t let me have a Davy Crockett hat I had just seen on someone in the parade we were watching. Black and white, these images I remember.
A picture of me in school uniform, in colour this time, pudgy knees showing, gold-and-blue tie crooked and too short – taken just after my father died.
A picture of me holding up a fish; of me sitting on my mother’s old car; of me….
And there’s the problem, you see: the first thing that comes is the picture; only then comes the context – and sometimes there’s no context at all. Which means – what? What could it mean for the vault of memories that make me?
I remember everything I ever wrote, I tell people who ask. And it’s true: as I am now, I cannot forget anything. Childish scribbles in a story book; compositions written in painful cursive, detailing fanciful and improbable adventures. Easier (but less neat) cursive, breezily trashing the US’s involvement in Vietnam; notes for senior school Chemistry and Biology – I remember them all.
All that I remember, that is – and if that sounds mysterious, it’s not meant to be. It’s another angle on what I remember, and how – and it’s one of the things that has brought me to where I am now.
Who am I?
Oh, I can tell you chapter and verse about what I have done, written, seen – but there are very important gaps. The kind of gaps that would be left if what it is that I don’t remember, is the stuff that wasn’t actually written down, photographed or recorded.
As for how I got here: it’s quite simple, really – start with spectacles, around age twelve. Add a watch. Twenty two years later, add the first in a long line of personal computers. Six years later, the first personal digital assistant – and around then, the first scanner and analogue video camera, and another few years later, the first digital camera. This is where the memories get rich; this point sometime in the late 1990s when the means of digitising images and text became freely available.
The personal storage – oh, the storage…going from 360 Kb floppy disks to a 30 Mb hard disk drive in 1989, to hundreds of megabytes in the 90s, to gigabytes at the dawn of the 21st century, to terabytes shortly later. Every new computer had enough space for everything that had come before, exponentially according to Moore. Photographs, videos and scans populated the hard drives; I scanned everything I had that was printed or handwritten to safeguard it against disaster, backed it up into the cloud when I could – and ran text- and handwriting recognition on it all, when it was possible to do so.
Digital devices ran my life, told where to be and when, acted as external memory that was synchronized across everything I owned.
Then the memory started becoming internal: implants to allow optical input to help failing eyes; implants to supplement memory as that began to fail. Implants that spoke to the cloud, and to what I had previously written or seen. I remember voice annotating all my early picture albums, so that I could pass something on to my family: recalling how I had used a half-obscured monochrome picture of a house I’d lived in for pellet gun practice, and then mounted it anyway; how a snake handler had let a python writhe around him in a zoo; how my sister had tried to grab my first game fish that I was holding up for the camera. What my children looked like, and how they grew.
I don’t know when the “I” that did all this went away. I know that what I remember got more and more detailed as the implants and recordings became a more and more complete record of what I did, wrote and saw – until I saw people around me in a bed, and then – I was here.
Here is an abstraction, of course. I am wherever I am called, to interact with the curious: what I see is what a cam shows me, from wherever I am accessed. So who am I, what am I? I am the sum of the recorded memories of someone who lived in the world, someone who is – gone. Was there a continuity, you ask? I thought so, once – but now….
I remember what someone thought was fit to record, before I was being recorded. I remember pictures of me because that was what was scanned; I “remember” some things because “I” annotated those pictures, or because “I” videoed events or was videoed myself, in media that were stored. I am the sum of my memories – which includes the records of a full career in molecular biology, the adventures of an amateur chef and photographer, and a father and husband.
And I exist in the cloud, building more memories to add to my store. That is how you become immortal: dead, but not forgetting. Never, never forgetting.