Read on esquire.com
There was a fantastic segment on 60 Minutes last night about people with highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM. Only 56 people in the world are known to have this condition, one of whom is the actress Marilu Henner. In short, people with HSAM remember every single day of their lives in acute detail. Throw out a random date from a random year, and, without a moment’s hesitation, they can tell you what day of the week it was. It’s not a party trick. Many people with HSAM are obsessive, but they lead “normal” lives. The main subject of the 60 Minutes piece, Bob Petrella, is a fully-functioning adult living and working in Los Angeles, but embedded within his super-memory is a never-ending story about a fictional college basketball team. He can name every fake player on the non-existent team going back decades. He can recall the score of specific games or jump into announcer mode and give you the play-by-play of situations that never occurred. It’s not that Petrella has memorized an arsenal of disparate details so much as he’s created an entire universe inside his mind. But Petrella knows that it’s all fake, and nobody seems to think it’s a particularly harmful hobby. In other words, the imaginary power forward is not telling Bob to go commit mass murder. Bob even laughs at the absurdity of it all now and again. He’s using his memory to tell himself a story, which is something that we all do every day.
For positive or neutral experiences, most people cherish the idealized narratives that our brains (and smartphones) create—the Instagram effect. But at the same time, an active digital existence makes it hard to ever truly escape the past, filtered or unfiltered. And while most people curate their lives on Facebook or Instagram in such a way that suppresses negative events like breakups and job losses, an individual’s Google search history is as neutral and pitiless as the weather. Gilberto Valle, the infamous New York City “cannibal cop,” was convicted partly on account of his browser history, which included research on acts like abduction and torture. (Valle’s conviction was later overturned, and he’s now the subject of a new documentary, Thought Crimes.)
Over the weekend, Google announced that users can now download and export the entirety of their search history. There are a few caveats: You can only download your own history, not someone else’s, and you can only retrieve searches that take place when you are signed into your Google account. Of course, that data is still hackable. But why would an average user even want access to this information? Why do we need to remember those nights we spend in a dark room huddled over a glowing screen, comparing images of pre-cancerous and non-cancerous moles? The days we wonder if we’re experiencing seasonal depression or real-as-hell depression? We can’t hide from our fleeting anxieties, but in a perfect world they are just that: Fleeting. And even if we’re resigned to the fact that the NSA is watching, how do we get over our mistakes if they never disappear?
Hillary Clinton’s staff deleted roughly 30,000 emails from her personal account, which she also used for work purposes during her tenure as Secretary of State. Clinton claims that the deleted emails were of a personal nature, something Republicans will no doubt repeatedly question over the next 18 months. For now, instead of being dogged by what’s contained in those 30,000 emails, Clinton is now trailed by the fact that the phrase “Hillary Clinton deleted emails” elicits 5.6 million search results. Jeb Bush’s former Chief Technology Officer, Ethan Czahor, stepped down two days after he was hired this past February because of offensive social media posts. He’s now launching an app that aims to help users scrub potentially-damaging digital blemishes before they lead to lost jobs. Last week, Louis C.K. said that he stopped tweeting, as a whole, because he considered his tweets “The worst things I ever said, heard and seen by the most people.”
So now a large portion of the population wakes up every morning afraid to do or say anything in the digital space that pushes the envelope, for better or worse. Elsewhere today, Twitter announced that users can now opt-in to accept direct messages from anyone, including those they do not follow or even know. So of course it won’t be long before another high-profile individual has his or her DMs made public, just like it won’t take long for a Google user to download his or her search history out of curiosity and see it wash up on enemy shores.
There are only 56 people in the world who can remember every day of their lives without the help of a computer. But with each passing service upgrade, the rest of us are further relinquishing our novel ability to forget. To let the past be the past. And so far, it’s hard to see how this ever-growing archive has made our personal lives any better. Or if our personal lives still exist, at all.