Friday, August 14, 2009

Computers Have No Memory

No, that's not what I mean.

Years ago, we kept our personal schedules, and our personal address lists, in paper books. If we were really organized, we kept them all in the same book, which may have been called a DayRunner or a Filofax. I used DayRunner, because it let me change out only the calendar pages, and keep my address pages from year to year. When an address or a phone number changed, you crossed it out (if you kept the list in ink) and wrote in the new one above it. I remember my mother's address book with sometimes 3 or 4 addresses scribbled in. (My sister moved a lot when she was in college.)

Now, we keep our addresses, and our schedule, and a whole lot of other things, in our electronic devices - computers. Cell phones. iPhones. Cell phones are a lot easier to carry around than DayRunners; I quit using a DayRunner because the weight of it in my purse was breaking my arm. But I've lost those crossed out addresses - I've lost the history. Electronic calendars have no memory of what the appointment was before you changed it. They don't remember what Aunt Betty's address was, before she moved to Cleveland. But my mother's
calendar did - and her address book did.

I thought of this because, the other day, I had to reschedule an appointment for a haircut. Like half the world, I use Microsoft Outlook, and I rescheduled a "recurring" appointment to happen one week later - and the entire history of my haircut appointments vanished. Now, I don't especially need to know when I got a haircut in March. But if the issue ever came up, it's gone.

Historians now can read the diaries, the desk calendars, the daily life records of people who kept their daily information in paper books. What will future historians know about us, 200 years from now? Will they be able to read what's in our cell phones? Mine has a password. Or will human history disappear, somewhere around 2003? Is a blog really the same as a diary? Will they even be able to read our blogs?


  1. One really neat form of literature is the travel diary.

    Frontier wives kept them, recording wagon-train journeys across the plains. Rich wives kept them on long ocean voyages, and when they did their "Grand Tour" on the Continent.

    I thought keeping a diary would be a very cool thing when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, but for some reason I had trouble recording dry fact, and instead speculated on intellectual things. Needless to say, it made turgid reading after just a few months. I think I have that diary somewhere, but it's of no value because it doesn't tell me what I was actually doing at the time.

    Keeping little appointment books and diaries is like a resolution I keep failing to live up to.

  2. I do keep travel diaries. I keep them on every vacation we take. It's a great way to relive the vacation, and it's a major input into those vacation blogs I write. I also keep a personal diary for the stuff that's too private to put into a blog (yes, there's a lot).

  3. I have a spiral-bound address book which dates back to 1968 if not earlier. Some pages are an absolute mess, but the history is fun to peruse once in a while.

  4. Strictly speaking, it depends on the software. The file tracking program I use at work (legal file tracking program since I'm a lawyer) keeps track of things like that. If you reschedule something, you mark it as rescheduled, and the original appointment stays put (marked as rescheduled). And so on. That kind of history can be very important, and so we keep track of it all electronically.

    Of course, we could probably bypass that if we really wanted to, but then we'd lose the history.