Outsourcing Our Memories

Do you know your spouse’s mobile phone number?

Joshua Foer says we memorize fewer things today. We’re outsourcing our memories to external devices – to tablets and smart phones. Memorial Day is a good day to remember why it’s wise to not outsource too much.

In his 2011 book Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer recounts how, in centuries past, people invested in their memories. They cultivated them. But with the cloud to hold our data, we’ve outsourced much of our memory. We memorize fewer things. While not knowing your spouse’s phone number might be inconsequential, Christopher Nolan’s 2000 film Memento considers the consequences of outsourcing too many memories.

Memento is the story of an amnesiac named Leonard. He’s seeking revenge for the murder of his wife after both were brutally attacked. Leonard survived, but with brain damage. He cannot retain any new memories since the attack. Finding his wife’s murderer requires outsourcing every new experience to external devices such as body tattoos, Post-It notes and Polaroids. Watch the movie to see how well it works.

In the Old Testament, zakar, to remember, refers to recalling the past to make sense of the present. Until recently, the past was recalled in metaphors, stories, and, eventually, good literature. If you watched Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln, you saw the benefits. The 16th President claimed to have had only one year of formal schooling. But he read everything he could lay his hands on. Lincoln mentioned specifically five books that he had committed to memory. These were the Bible, Aesop’s Fables, Pilgrim’s Progress, Burns, and Shakespeare. Throughout Lincoln, the President, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, pulls from the past to make sense of the present. For example, Lincoln cites this line – “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.” Do you recognize the author? Most viewers don’t. It’s from Shakespeare’s “King Henry the Fourth.”

Spielberg likely takes artistic license in the movie. But we do know that Lincoln had committed many works, as well as poetry, to memory. Shortly after he secured the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, a reporter traveled to Springfield, Illinois, to learn about the candidate’s background. In an interview, Lincoln said his early life could be condensed into a single phrase: “the short and simple annals of the poor.” Who was he was quoting? The 18th century English poet Thomas Gray. The words came from “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard.” Most listeners in Lincoln’s day knew that.

Four years later, President Lincoln sat for Francis Bicknell Carpenter. The painter was working on “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln,” a portrait that now hangs in the Capitol. Lincoln’s young son Tad bound into the room, having fetched a copy of Shakespeare’s plays from the White House library. With the volume in hand, the president recited several passages from memory. Then Lincoln turned his gaze to Carpenter. “There is a poem that has been a great favorite with me for years.” He closed his eyes and recited 56 lines. Yes, 56 lines. “I would give a great deal to know who wrote it, but I never could ascertain.”

The author was William Knox. The poem is “Mortality,” better known by its first line, “O why should the spirit of mortal be proud!” The theme is death, the great leveler that touches saints and sinners, parents and children. By the time Lincoln sat for Carpenter, the President and Mary had lost two of four young sons. Edward died in 1850, at the age of four. Willie lived 12 years and died of typhoid fever while Lincoln was President. Lincoln had written this poem, probably in remembrance of Edward and Willie.

My child-hood home I see again,
          And gladden with the view;
And still as mem’ries crowd my brain,
          There’s sadness in it too–

O memory! thou mid-way world
          ‘Twixt Earth and Paradise;
Where things decayed, and loved ones lost
          In dreamy shadows rise–

Lincoln hadn’t outsourced too many memories. These days, it appears increasing numbers of folks are, including Christians. We’re outsourcing our memories to external devices like the cloud, or, for Christians, BibleGateway.com. The Internet can be helpful but can’t replace old-fashioned scripture memorization. We get this from the psalmist who wrote: “Your word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11). He’s recommending we insource important memories. If the psalmist were alive today, he’d add that we can’t avoid sinning, or making sense of the present, simply by scrolling through Bible websites. Life comes at us too fast – like it did for Leonard in Memento. The wise move is insourcing the right memories. This might not help you recall a friend’s phone number, but you’d make better sense of a badly scrambled world.

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5 Comments

  1. Beautiful Mike. I read somewhere that “The failure to remember is the root of apostasy.” How often God laments that his people do not remember his great blessings in the past. You have once again put your finger on one of the silent erosions of modernism. Thank you.

  2. Another strong piece Mike. Thank you for sharing and reminding us the importance of remembering, especially on this day. I think the imagery of scrolling down biblegateway.com alone, not being able to form a person spiritually was particularly strong.

  3. The challenge is whether we recall data, knowledge, understanding or wisdom. The scribes, Sadducees and Pharisees had good recall of the jot and tittle, but by outsourcing their hearts. Memory of the Torah as Jesus knew it is in short supply.Burns & Shakespeare are examples of resonance with the common man. Bunyan, common man responding to the gospel. As Spurgeon sort to communicate with the ploughman. Primarily remember your Creator and His creation. Blessed are……
    Remember out attitudes. Glorify God with the technology He has given us.

  4. Remember our attitudes. Blessed is the person that can laugh at themselves, as they will never cease to be entertained.

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