These Memories of Ours

Humans have used various tools throughout the ages to augment our long term memories. We painted on cave walls, we wrote on stone tablets, we wrote on parchment & paper, we painted some more, we put our memories into song, we took photographs, we recorded videos, we told our stories to our children as a form of generational memory augmentation.

Along this journey comes along a little device called the smartphone. It has a camera! It can take photos and record video. It can then share these memories to people all around the world in a matter of seconds. As a result of this, we take thousands of photos in a year. Why wouldn’t we? These magical slabs of glass make it effortless.

We have made the smartphone one of the most important memory augmentation tools of our lives. We have in essence given our memories, at least in part to these devices. In doing so, we also give these memories to the mega corporations that make these devices. We generate so many photos a year that we rely on the tools provided by various software vendors to catalogue them and more importantly to tell us which ones are important.

Apple’s iOS has a feature within its photos subsystems it calls, quite simply – Memories. What does this feature do? It uses on-device machine learning models to catalogue every single photo in your library. It then uses yet another set of ML models to look through the catalogue of your photos and generate discrete collections of them which it calls Memories. Your phone sends you a notification, “hey I’ve got a new memory for you!”.

Do you now? Is it your memory dear phone? Or is it mine? Do I get to choose?

Recently at their WWDC keynote, Apple announced a variant on this feature, a new app it is calling Journal. Like the Memories feature, it uses on-device ML models to generate journaling prompts. I’ll let Victoria Song from The Verge describe the problem with this:

My problem, based on the preliminary details Apple’s given us, is this proposed execution feels half-baked. People don’t only take photos of happy things or moments that spark joy. If your camera roll is like mine, it’s a jumble of happy, serene, infuriating, vain, mundane, and melancholy moments. It’s messy because life is messy. And if the Journal app truly takes a page from Apple’s Memories feature, there’s a good chance it’s going to tactlessly ambush you with memories you either don’t want or aren’t ready to see.

Apple’s Journal app needs to read the room by Victoria Song

Victoria’s piece on this topic inspired me to write this post, so thank you Victoria. I would also like to thank Lauren Goode for a similar piece in Wired in 2021.

What we lost when we gave our memories to our smartphones is a certain level of control and consent. I would like to be able to mark certain photos in my photo library as completely off-limits for the Memories feature. As Victoria mentions, I too want more granular control over the presentation and augmentation of my memories. Let me choose.

This topic has also been on the forefront of my mind as somewhat recently OneDrive’s “On This Day” feature brought up a picture of my dad from long past. For context, my dad passed away in 2020. I was not expecting and I certainly wasn’t ready to deal with a wave of emotion as this feature presented this photo to me.

Annoyed at this, I turned off notifications for the feature within OneDrive. I couldn’t turn the feature itself off, I couldn’t exclude that certain photo. I could only turn off notifications for the future. I could ostensibly see these “On This Day” collections again if I jump into the OneDrive iOS app on any given day. Thanks Microsoft. /s

Tech companies can and should do better on this front. If they are going to design these tools that deal with something as complex and personal as our own memories, they need to design these tools with the complexity of human life in mind. Give us more control, more granularity, let us generate these so-called “memories” ourselves on our own time, when we want, when we are ready. Let us choose.

Ultimately, these memories of ours are ours to remember, ours to forget, and ours to relive when and how we want. If the smartphone is going to be a curator of these memories, it needs to do so with more care and finesse than what a unfeeling machine learning model can deliver. So I say again: let us choose.