Mr. Memory


Wylie Watson as Mr. Memory in The 39 Steps, Gaumont British, 1935

From Prospect:

We’re in a bar in Dalston. No smoking, of course, so no matchbooks to scribble a phone number on. It’s so long since I memorised one that I know better than to try, especially after several pink drinks. I proffer the inside of my wrist. My young companion looks at me blankly. “Write your number here,” I say. He shakes his head, unsure I still deserve it. “That is so LAME.” He asks my number, calls my mobile; I save his number under the name “Pete Superstore” or some such. There it will sit, along with “Angela Tango” and “Resty Fishnet,” until I either get to know him well enough to remember his surname or I delete him along with the other random numbers that have entered my phone without their owners entering my consciousness.

In his new book Moonwalking With Einstein (Penguin), Joshua Foer teaches us tricks to remember phone numbers, and even their owners’ names—at least until we have a chance to write them down on a matchbook. His book, misleadingly subtitled The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, deals mostly with a handful of well-established methods for remembering numbers and sequences of playing cards. It is nonetheless delightful. Foer meanders through a history of memory, from the oral traditions of the Greek bards to the thankfully-not-yet-realised merging of neurons and nanochips by way of the intermediate technologies: stone tablets, scrolls, manuscripts, printed books, indexed volumes, searchable electronic files, the Googlenet.

With each new technology, our ability to outsource the functions of memory has grown. For information to be useful over the long term, it has to be both stored and retrievable. Marble slabs are pretty good for long-term storage—much less likely to be ruined by a wayward coffee cup than a CD-Rom—but not terribly searchable. The papyrus scrolls of the Greeks were at least more portable but they were WRITTENALLASSINGLEWORDINCAPSWITHOUTSPACESORPUNCTUATIONANDWITH
RANDOMLINEBREAKSANDREALLYHARDTOREADLETALONESEARCH. Indexing allowed us to find information in a book without having read the whole thing, but we still had to keep enough data in our heads to tell us which books to look in. Now, most of us have freed up the space in our brains that was given over to phone numbers, appointments and train timetables by leaving the information on some electronic device or other and accessing it only when we need to. Soon, poetry, literature and even the historical performance of sports teams will go the same way.

“You must remember this”, Elizabeth Pisani, Prospect