Is It Worth the Effort to Create a Database to Store Memories I’ll Forget?

by James Wallace Harris, 11/16/22

This weekend, while my sister was here visiting from Florida, we watched The Automat. It’s a lovely nostalgic documentary about the Horn & Hardart Automat restaurants that were in Philadelphia and New York City from 1902 to 1991. What made the story so charming is it combined history with sociology, pop culture, and interviews with famous people who related fond memories of visiting the Automats. The Automat portrayed a unique subculture.

I told my sister this documentary reminded me of another I liked very much but I couldn’t remember its name or even its subject. That was rather frustrating. After she went to the airport yesterday, I began struggling to remember that documentary. I got on Google and tried search terms such as “nostalgic documentaries” and “quirky documentaries.” I went through many lists, discovering documentaries I had seen, liked, and forgotten, but didn’t find the one I wanted. I had a vague sense it involved a household fixture. During the hours of trying to dredge up what the documentary was about, I recalled it dealt with music, but not normal music, maybe it was about jingles in ads. Then the word “Broadway” popped into my mind.

I put the word Broadway in IMDB and came up with Bathtubs Over Broadway. It was on Netflix and I went and watched some of it again. It’s about a writer, Steve Young, who wrote for The Late Show with David Letterman. Part of his job was finding oddball records for Letterman to make fun of on the show. Young discovered that during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s corporations would spend huge sums of money putting on musicals at their conventions, and they made commemorative soundtrack albums to give to their salesmen. Sometimes these corporations spent more on producing these shows than some famous musicals on Broadway. Again, this documentary combined history, sociology, pop culture, and interviews to document a unique subculture.

Now, this essay isn’t about those shows, but about remembering those shows, or remembering anything. I often struggle to recall a name of a person, book, movie, album, TV show, event, etc. I’ve done this all my life, but it seems to be getting worse now that I’m older. And, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, I’ve been wondering if there is a technique or system I could develop to help me remember.

My first thought was to keep lists. My second thought was to make flashcards. My third thought was it had to work with my phone. The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) has a feature that allows registered users to keep lists, so I started one for documentaries I’ve watched. Weeks ago, I also started a list in Notes on my iPhone for movies and TV shows I’ve seen, but I might move it to IMDB.

One reason I feel the pressure to remember books, TV shows, movies, and documentaries is that whenever I talk with my friends, one of the main topics is what we’ve been reading or watching. And during my weekly get-togethers or phone calls, I often forget what I’ve seen or read during the past week.

However, is all this list-making worth the effort? I’ve tried it before and failed. It takes a bit of time, a little effort, and discipline. I have faithfully maintained a books-read list since 1983 and that has paid off in many ways. I’ve often wished I had started that list with Treasure Island, a book my mother read to me in 3rd grade in 1959. So a log of all the TV shows and movies I’ve watched would have been just as handy.

But how practical is it to keep lists of everything we want to remember? What about a list of everyone I’ve ever known? Or a list of everywhere I’ve ever lived, including vacation spots? They wouldn’t be impractical long lists.

Most of my memory struggles could be solved with five to ten good lists.

Have I just come up with a new idea for a social media service or an extra feature for Facebook? When do kids get their first smartphone or tablet? How young can you start entering data into your memory database?

It’s amazing that we have memories at all. I have no idea how molecules in the brain record what we experience. It’s amazing but unreliable. What if we had a reliable external memory? How would that change us and society?

What if we had photos and video clips of everyone we’ve ever met? Or at least got to know? You know those videos of people whose fathers took one picture a day or year for decades to make a speeded-up version of their growth? What if we all did that with our family and friends over our lifetime?

What would this take to make this happen? We have some of the technology right now. It would just take discipline and maybe ten or fifteen minutes a day. I started with my reading log in 1983. Several years ago I began using Goodreads. Now I’m using IMDB. None of these methods is perfect. What’s needed is software designed specifically to be external memory, with features that helped with recording and retrieval.

All of this makes me wonder just how much we want to remember? It might not be that much. Theoretically, we could record everything we see and hear to video, but I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t want that much. It would be nice to just have a few minutes of video of our peak experiences. Isn’t what we really want a finite number of concrete facts? A handful of lists, a diary, and a collection of photos and videos might do the trick.

So, how much of our life could be remembered in one terabyte?


13 thoughts on “Is It Worth the Effort to Create a Database to Store Memories I’ll Forget?”

  1. I think, without evidence, keeping such a list regardless of format, would take more time than it would be worth. I have two items I wish I knew — (1) why my father named me what he did; never asked and it’s too late now. (2) the name of a western serial we watched every Saturday at the movie theater; we moved from town before it finished and I never learned the identity of the bad guy; I would love to know how it turned out but I can’t recall its name. My point is I think about those two events once in a while and I regret not knowing. Perhaps they have encouraged me to do something in the now and not put it off. But I have managed to proceed with my life and those events are specific to me — they are mine alone. That makes me, in some odd way, unique.

      1. Sorry. I didn’t mean to imply I can remember everything else, just the two unmemorable events. I’m 80 but in reasonable mental health. Retired at 55 and found that I can’t recall names of some people. Since I worked for some 35 years using words, I also have been sensitive to not remembering specific words that I know I knew. I could create a database for those, but the OED probably would function as well.

        1. I didn’t think you suggested you remembered everything but that you weren’t concerned as much about remembering everything. While I’m more hung up on not remembering.

          I have a feeling that most people don’t try to remember as much as I do.

          I liked your story about not remembering the western serial. It makes me want to know too now.

          1. Yeah, I tried a few times to research it. Plot was a matter of cattle rustling. Bad guys ran the herds through a mine tunnel somewhere. While I didn’t know who boss bad guy was, hints pointed toward the town doctor, who walked with a limp that may have been fake. I have no idea who the actors were. We watched it during the spring/summer of 1951 in Cleburne, Texas, at one of three theaters in town, probably the oldest. That theater was adjacent to the Sherwin Williams paint store, I think west side of the town square. We went to the show each Saturday with the paint store owner’s son, last name Watson. We left town in July. Now all that may indicate a good memory, but I don’t think so. Anyway, if those are clues that encourage you to investigate, I’d love to know what you find out. If not, well and good.

          2. Thanks so much for the link. I skimmed 1930s to 1950s, dug into half a dozen serials whose titles seemed promising, no joy. When I get a bit more time I’ll get into more. But it’s good to have a starting point.

  2. I think if you could manage to create an external memory system for yourself that would only involve 5-10 lists that it would be well worth your time. The mere fact that you are writing about it seems to me to indicate that maintaining these memories is important to you.

    It does require the commitment to stick with it, of course. Would schedule a certain time every day, or once a week, etc. and putting that on an actual calendar app that would remind you work in starting and then maintaining these lists?

    I was curious about what might exist online already and although this doesn’t necessarily meet what you are looking for, I was interested to find this site with just a simple word search about free online memory lists:

    I’ve keep a reading list since 2004. A friend and I were just chatting yesterday about how we really wished we had a list of every book we’ve read since we first started reading on our own. I remember so many books that I’ve read over and over and over again, but there have to be a ton of one-time reads that I would love to remember, even if it was simply the name and author.

  3. I remember some of the past, but they are really just snippets. I’d like to expand on some of them. But others, hurtful things, I don’t want to remember, especially any details or to feel the feelings again full force.
    Old memories fade and new ones take heir place. Over all I’m in the I don’t care a whole lot about remembering in too much detail. Fine like it is.

  4. What a great idea. I too get tangled in remembering. For about 20 years I’ve kept a summary of each year. Places we went, people we met, restaurants, movies we watched (theatre only), celebrations, books and who stayed with us, births but not deaths (trying to stay positive). It went a little pear shaped during the last 3 years thanks to Covid. The strange thing is that once recorded I really look back on past years. Though I do feel better about having made the list. My main point of reference is my photos that I religiously store in date order. Gosh, we humans are a funny bunch aren’t we?

    1. I wish I had kept such records. When I had surgery this year they asked about the previous times I’ve had surgery. I could remember having various surgeries but no sense of when.

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