Let the memory live again, minus technology

Recently, I lost my memories of the past three years.

I admit that this was mostly through my own folly. I had failed to regularly back up my laptop, which gave up the ghost one day without warning and took with it all the digital detritus of my days - photos, videos, research, music, text conversations.

I spent a miserable Saturday lugging my laptop around Orchard Road, only to be told, at the one tech store that would see me without an appointment, that it would cost me $1,000 to revive my ailing laptop long enough to rescue its contents. "How much are your memories worth?" quipped the counter staff.

My memories were very precious to me, but not to the tune of $1,000. So, goodbye, myriad photos of cake and flat whites. Goodbye, iTunes playlists for working out or breaking up. Goodbye - here I tried to think of something else I regretted losing, but could recall no more. Oh well. I consigned them all to the ash heap.

Granted, this was not quite tabula rasa. A lot of my memories are stored on social media, in Facebook posts or on my Instagram feed.

In a way, I thought bitterly, social media was responsible for the loss of my data. I had assumed I was constantly documenting my life, so I had left off backing up my laptop. Now, whenever I checked Facebook, I was reminded of all the things I had decided not to post and thus allowed to vanish from my life.

The digitisation of our experiences has vastly improved our capacity to archive our lives. If we so desired, we could record our every thought on Twitter, our every meal on Instagram, our every conversation in WhatsApp.

The human memory is a flighty thing, full of flaws and filters and fictions. Whereas, thanks to Facebook's On This Day app, I will always know what I was doing on this day last year, the year before, and the year before that.

(On this day five years ago, for example, I set off the smoke alarm in my flat's kitchen by burning a mass of fried dumplings. In order to escape censure, I destroyed the evidence by eating all the dumplings at once. Thanks to Facebook, this memory can keep making me ill for years to come.)

In the past, people had to go to great lengths to create records of their lives. In the late 1800s, taking photos required the subject to stay completely still for 30 seconds.

Babies had to be photographed held tightly by their mothers, who obscured themselves under cloth. This led to the faintly macabre phenomenon of Victorian baby photos with ghostly, sheet-draped figures in the background.

Compare this with the 20 photo albums my parents filled with me, their firstborn. Or, today, the constant stream of updates on my Facebook feed from friends chronicling their new offspring's every breath. O brave new world, that has such data storage in it!

Now that we have the technology to take trillions of photos a year, we encounter a different problem. Where once we had a paucity of preservation, now we are overwhelmed.

Smartphones, for all their powers, cannot distinguish the value of a memory. Unless you constantly make the effort to organise your data, that one snapshot of a friend's last goodbye will be buried in seas of avocado toast photos and cat memes.

The outsourcing of memory to our devices has also irrevocably changed the way we remember. In a 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science, Fairfield University professor Linda Henkel posits that taking photos of an object impairs your memory of it.

In the experiment, students were led on a tour of an art museum and told to either take photos of certain objects or just observe them. When tested next day, they were less accurate in recognising the objects they had photographed, compared with those they had only observed. If they thought something was going into the camera's memory, it made less of a mark on their own.

"Photographed reality immediately takes on a nostalgic character," writes the Italian writer Italo Calvino in his short story collection Difficult Loves, "... even if the picture was taken the day before yesterday. And the life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself."

The loss of my laptop made me realise how dependent I had become on technology to remember my life. I was disturbed, too, by the idea that this had inadvertently impacted my ability to remember on my own.

My memory is not as good as it used to be. More and more, I lose things: the names of the streets on which I used to live, the lines of a play I was in, the taste of my late grandmother's cooking.

I do not know if this is because I have passed the age where the cells in my brain have started to die, or because I am on social media too much, or if one is simply exacerbating the other. This frightens me. I am only in my 20s, after all. I have so much more forgetting ahead of me.

Our devices are a wonderful, nearly infinite repository, but I have come to rely on them too much as a crutch for memory. They should be the backup. The originals should be in my mind, created as I lived the moment.

Often, my peers and I egg each other on to do crazy things for the sake of documenting them for our newsfeeds. "Do it for the 'gram," we cry. "Pix or it didn't happen."

The 'gram is great, of course, but the real point of it all is surely the doing. And it did happen, pictures or no. I was there. I remember.

Recently, I interviewed a man in his 70s, a construction worker for most of his life. In his sparse rental flat, he took out two small black-and-white photos and placed them in my hands: himself at age 10, holding a guitar, beaming widely.

These were the only two records he had of his early life. Everything else had been lost in the tremulous depths of his memory. And yet, as he gazed at these photos with shining eyes, I knew that nothing in the sea of selfies sitting in my phone would ever mean quite so much.

When I get a new laptop to store my life in, I shall back it up all the time. But I shall also bear in mind that it is one thing to record, and another to remember - to remember, putting scattered parts back together to see the direction in which we are going.

Technology can only record. To rediscover, reconnect, reminisce - that is on us.

• #opinionoftheday is a column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 10, 2017, with the headline 'Let the memory live again, minus technology'. Print Edition | Subscribe