Mnemonic or Memorandum
March 30, 2020
At some point I stopped trusting my memory. Information I might need to recall later had to get recorded somewhere, or it was as good as lost. All throughout a conversation I would be engaged in the parallel tasks of listening and making mental notes regarding how and where I would write down what I learned, once I got some time.
When I was younger I took pride in having an excellent memory, being able to recall at will a great deal of what I read and heard. It was a phenomenal tool that was all my own, and accompanied me everywhere I went.
Then I discovered there was a better, safer, more reliable tool - an organized system of notes that I could consult whenever I found myself grasping for some elusive fragment of knowledge in the head, and whenever knowledge in the world did not suffice.
Perhaps taking notes became my dominant way of recording information since I began working in tech. I’m sure it’s this way in all domains, to some extent, but in tech the emphasis placed on documentation is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. Documentation is vital and it’s absolutely everywhere.
You might say software developers are in the business of making tools to help solve problems, and any carefully made tool comes with an instruction manual. But then the output of our activity consists not just of tools, but of structures built with tools. So there should be documentation to elucidate not just the proper use of tools, but the principle by which the structure was assembled, so that those inheriting the task of maintaining it know which walls are load-bearing, and what diameter of screw is used throughout. Writing a new tool? Where’s the API reference? Writing a new class? What did you name it?
With so much effort being exerted to ensure that knowledge is publicly available, it’s clear that the developer’s starting point is an awareness of the fallibility and finitude of the human mind. And this is not a bad thing, having allowed us to come so far already.
This is the ethos that contributed to the shift in where I keep my own knowledge. Yet it feels like I’m giving something up. Ironically, by externalizing memories, and making them more permanent and easily accessible, I feel like I’ve become less self-sufficient. Whereas before I carried my memories with me and risked them becoming unrecoverable, now they’re persisted in the cloud but I’ve weighted myself down with the additional task of keeping them up to date, organizing them, and ensuring I have a device to give me access. One fragility is traded for another.
In a way I miss the rolling, discursive amble of sifting through memories as I attempt to recall something specific - keeping records feels laden with a kind of clinical sterility by comparison. But we can’t have a perfect memory, and perhaps we wouldn’t want to.
Given our limitations, keeping external records is more sustainable in the long run, and provides a potential benefit to others. Not to mention, having become accustomed to writing things down, it undoubtedly feels safer, and I get a little anxious when I consider the prospect of going back.
If I’m to dispense with regret, then the way forward leads to me getting ever more comfortable with writing, organizing, cultivating. And all the while, in the gap between the experience and the record, I cannot forget that the experience takes precedence. The primary source is more than what I write down after the fact. The map is not the territory. Being present in the experience is the only way I can come to terms with the circumstances, and as close to the best of both worlds as I will get.