Confessions of an Information Hoarder

What happens to our brains when we have an infinite memory?

There was a point during the most isolating parts of the pandemic, usually when I was bored in the evening, where I’d open my phone’s camera roll and scroll back through my pre-pandemic life. I’m not sure if this was a healthy lockdown coping strategy or not, but I’d thumb through photos of mundane life moments that, in that moment, felt exotic. Look at me. In a restaurant! At a concert with friends! Participating in society showing my full face!

 Content of the photos aside, there was also something genuinely pleasing about the experience of clicking the Photos app and seeing this mosaic of my life (when I sort by “All Photos,’ my iPhone shows 45 frames at a time). Occasionally I would page through the 26,224 photos in my library (which my phone refers to, quite generously, as “Recents”) to find something from a few years back, and the act of rapid scrolling would blur and shift the mosaic. I noticed while swiping that, without seeing individual photos, this specific document of my life had different eras with distinct color palettes. The palette was darker, for instance, when I lived in New York City, probably because more of my photos were taken inside my dimly lit railroad apartment. There’s a period around late 2015 where the mosaic turns reddish-brown, a marker of when my dog, Peggy came into my life. I moved to Montana in 2017, and the scrolling blur is blue and green, the result of many shoddy attempts to capture a new home that featured mountains and a large sky.

Scrolling through all our images is a strange, introspective, even poignant experience, enough so that people have written songs about it. “Chronological order and nothing but torture” is how the singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves put it on her recent album. And, yes, these archives can be a reminder of lost love or loved ones or simply the relentless passage of time. It’s also a marvelous diary and documentary tool. On one thumbing excursion, I got preoccupied with the hypothetical notion of a historian trying to write somebody’s life story only by looking through their camera roll. The cloud as biographer.

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