A professional photographer might take 1,000 shots over the course of a week, saving only a handful of those for future use. This is the first rule of digital photography: the more pictures you take, the better chance you have that some might turn out.
I’m no photographer. I’m just a guy with a camera, two kids, and a heart for the sentimental. But I still take a lot of pictures, and I hold each of my photos dear — all 25,000 I’ve taken over the life of my camera, and thousands more over the life of my phones. The portraits, the action shots, the mistakes, the over-edited Instagrams, the fading blurs that my children turn into as they scatter from the sound of the shutter. Click. One more. Click. And another.
I save about one of every three pictures I take. I edit a small percentage of those, and I post an even smaller percentage for the public — enough to curate a sort of public account of my family, from our first house to our first kid to our first major accident. In this way, my photos form into a loose hierarchy of archived history. The high points that are captured are strengthened by the white space in between, where no camera was present, but memory continues to cling to some details.
I began organising information not out of boredom or pickiness, but out of necessity. My memory often fails me, so I was driven to construct a sort of scaffolding through the organization fo tasks and terms, lists and calendars, sketches and memoirs. A rough draft of what I should probably remember, if my mind wasn’t so busy wandering through itself.
Because human memory is unreliable, to say the least, we have benefited from the invention of computer memory. Aided by technology’s ability to create a concrete organisation of our thoughts and achievements — files go here, folders go there, organised by date and relevance — we’re able to let our mind wander without fear of losing something important. We can focus on the important details because we have outsourced the process, with each idea safe and sound under several layers of machine technology.
We’ve always done this. We organise our recipes and we alphabetise our books. We go through mental checklists in our head as we invite friends to a summer barbecue, invisibly marking each name as they’re invited. We place similar dishes in the same cupboard to help our minds remember where they’re located. Now, these things are increasingly being handled with us.
Here’s where the great debate rages. Is this auto-classification causing us to lose our ability to remember menial information without the aid of a machine — phone numbers, appointments, even our own thoughts about a restaurant? Are we letting go of this information and allowing it to be filed away because we enjoy the convenience? Or have we stopped regarding personal details like birthdays and addresses as “things worth remembering”?
There was a time when I could tell you the phone number of everyone I knew. Now, I file them way, organised by last name, split into device and used only as reference. Those phone numbers are just details. Individually, they represent a single person’s contact information. Together, however, they represent the story of my social circle. They represent my family. Certain groupings remind me of conferences I’ve attended; other groups bring to mind college life.
My reliance on organisation is constantly battling my attempts to live in the moment. But there’s no way I could do one without the other. My life is organised so I can be free to live it, free from anxiety and disarray. Free to create something worth saving. Worth organising. We often think of organisation — whether through site architecture or classification or simple groupings — as a way of finding things, as a road map toward hidden ideas and actions. But we rarely think of organization as a form of memory, using the connections between items to form a better understanding of the things we’ve already experienced.
I love being a human. I love the emotions, the pain and the unpredictability. But I also love being able to rely on a system. A system that allows me to think lessa bout where my memories have gone, and more on how I can continue creating new ones. Our systems might distract us from living in the moment, but they also help preserve the moment long after we’d have otherwise forgotten it.
Folder by folder. Idea by idea. Memory by memory.