STUART KINLOUGH
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Head in the cloud

As we download ever more of our lives on to electronic devices, are we destroying our own internal memory?

I do not remember my husband’s tele­phone number, or my best friend’s address. I have forgotten my cousin’s birthday, my seven times table, the date my grandfather died. When I write, I keep at least a dozen internet tabs open to look up names and facts I should easily be able to recall. There are so many things I no longer know, simple things that matter to me in practical and personal ways, yet I usually get by just fine. Apart from the few occasions when my phone has run out of battery at a crucial moment, or the day I accidentally plunged it into hot tea, or the evening my handbag was stolen, it hasn’t seemed to matter that I have downloaded most of my working memory on to electronic devices. It feels a small inconvenience, given that I can access information equivalent to tens of billions of books on a gadget that fits into my back pocket.

For thousands of years, human beings have relied on stone tablets, scrolls, books or Post-it notes to remember things that their minds cannot retain, but there is something profoundly different about the way we remember and forget in the internet age. It is not only our memory of facts that is changing. Our episodic memory, the mind’s ability to relive past experiences – the surprising sting of an old humiliation revisited, the thrill and discomfort of a first kiss, those seemingly endless childhood summers – is affected, too. The average Briton now spends almost nine hours a day staring at their phone, computer or television, and when more of our lives are lived on screen, more of our memories will be formed there. We are recording more about ourselves and our experiences than ever before, and though in the past this required deliberate effort, such as sitting down to write a diary, or filing away a letter, or posing for a portrait, today this process can be effortless, even unintentional. Never before have people had access to such comprehensive and accurate personal histories – and so little power to rewrite them.

My internet history faithfully documents my desktop meanderings, even when I resurface from hours of browsing with little memory of where I have been or what I have read. My Gmail account now contains over 35,000 emails received since 2005. It has preserved the banal – long-expired special offers, obsolete arrangements for post-work drinks – alongside the life-changing. Loves and break-ups are chronicled here; jobs, births and weddings are announced; deaths are grieved. My Facebook profile page has developed into a crowdsourced, if assiduously edited, photo album of my social life over the past decade. My phone is a museum of quick-fire text exchanges. With a few clicks, I can retrieve, in mind-numbing detail, information about my previous movements, thoughts and feelings. So could someone else. Even my most private digital memories are not mine alone. They have become data to be restructured, repackaged, aggregated, copied, deleted, monetised or sold by internet firms. Our digital memories extend far beyond our reach.

In the late 1990s the philosopher David Chalmers coined the term “the extended mind” to describe how when we use pen and paper, calculators, or laptops to help us think or remember, these external objects are incorporated into our cognitive processes. “The technology we use becomes part of our minds, extending our minds and indeed our selves into the world,” Chalmers said in a 2011 Ted talk. Our iPhones have not been physically implanted into our brains, he explained, but it’s as if they have been. There’s a big difference between offloading memory on to a notepad and doing it on to a smartphone. One is a passive receptacle, the other is active. A notebook won’t reorganise the information you give it or ping you an alert; its layout and functions won’t change overnight; its contents aren’t part-owned by the stationery firm that made it. The more we extend our minds online, the harder it is becoming to keep control of our digital pasts, or to tell where our memories begin or end. And, while society’s collective memory is expanding at an astonishing rate, our internal, individual ones are shrinking.

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Our brains are lazy; we are reluctant to remember things when we can in effect delegate the task to someone or something else. You can observe this by listening to couples, who often consult one another’s memories: “What was the name of that nice Chinese restaurant we went to the other day?” Subconsciously, partners distribute responsibility for remembering information according to each other’s strengths. I ask my husband for directions, he consults me on people’s names.

In one study conducted in 1991, psychologists assigned a series of memory exercises to pairs of students, some of whom had been dating for at least three months and some of whom did not know one another. The dating couples remembered more than the non-dating pairs. They also remembered more unique information; when a fact fell into their partner’s area of expertise, they were more likely to forget it.

In a similar way, when we know that a computer can remember something for us we are less likely to remember it ourselves. For a study published by the journal Science in 1991, people were asked to type some trivia facts into a computer. Those who believed the facts would be saved at the end of the experiment remembered less than those who thought they would be deleted – even when they were explicitly asked to memorise them. In an era when technology is doing ever more remembering, it is unsurprising that we are more inclined to forget.

It is sometimes suggested that in time the worry that the internet is making us forgetful will sound as silly as early fears that books would do the same. But the internet is not an incremental step in the progression of written culture, it is revolutionising the way we consume information. When you pull an encyclopaedia down from a library shelf, it is obvious that you are retrieving a fact you have forgotten, or never knew. Google is so fast and easy to use that we can forget we have consulted it at all: we are at risk of confusing the internet’s memory with our own. A Harvard University project in 2013 found that when people were allowed to use Google to check their answers to trivia questions they rated their own intelligence and memories more highly – even if they were given artificially low test results. Students usually believed more often that Google was confirming a fact they already knew, rather than providing them with new information.

This changed when Adrian Ward, now an assistant professor at the University of Austin, who designed the study as part of his PhD research, mimicked a slow internet connection so that students were forced to wait 25 seconds to read the answer to a Google query. The delay, he noted, stripped them of the “feeling of knowing” because they became more aware that they were consulting an external source. In the internet age, Ward writes, people “may offload more and more information while losing sight of the distinction between information stored in their minds and information stored online”.

By blurring the distinction between our personal and our digital memories, modern technology could encourage intellectual complacency, making people less curious about new information because they feel they already know it, and less likely to pay attention to detail because our computers are remembering it. What if the same could be said for our own lives: are we less attentive to our experiences because we know that computers will record them for us?

An experiment by the American psychologist Linda Henkel suggests this could be the case; she has found that when people take photographs at museums they are more likely to forget details of what they have seen. To some extent, we’re all tourists exploring the world from behind a camera, too distracted by our digital memories to inhabit our analogue lives fully. Relying on computers to remember telephone numbers or trivia does not seem to deprive our internal memories of too much – provided you can remember where you’ve stored it, factual information is fairly straightforward to retrieve. Yet a digital memory is a poor substitute for the richness of a personal experience revisited, and our autobiographical memories cannot be “retrieved” by opening the relevant online file.

Our relationship with the past is capricious. Sometimes an old photograph can appear completely unfamiliar, while at other times the faintest hint – the smell of an ex-lover’s perfume on a crowded Tube carriage – can induce overwhelming nostalgia. Remembering is in part a feeling, of recognition, of having been there, of reinhabiting a former self. This feeling is misleading; we often imagine memories offer an authentic insight into our past. They do not.

Memory is closely linked to self-identity, but it is a poor personal record. Remembering is a creative act. It is closely linked to imagining. When people suffer from dementia they are often robbed not only of the past but also of the future; without memory it is hard to construct an idea of future events. We often mistakenly convert our imaginings into memories – scientists call the process “imagination inflation”. This puts biological memories at odds with digital ones. While memories stored online can be retrieved intact, our internal memories are constantly changing and evolving. Each time we relive a memory, we reconfigure it to suit our present needs and world-view. In his book Pieces of Light, an exploration of the new science of memory, the neuroscientist Charles Fernyhough compares the construction of memory to storytelling. To impose meaning on to our chaotic, complex lives we need to know which sections to abridge and which details can be ignored. “We are all natural born storytellers. We are constantly editing and remaking our memory stories as our knowledge and emotions change. They may be fictions, but they are our fictions,” Fernyhough writes.

We do not write these stories alone. The human mind is suggestible. In 2013, scientists at MIT made international headlines when they said they had successfully implanted a false memory into a mouse using a form of light stimulation, but human beings implant false memories into each other all the time, using more low-tech methods. Friends and family members are forever distorting one another’s memories. I remember distinctly being teased for my Dutch accent at school and indignantly telling my mother when I arrived home that, “It’s pronounced one, two, three. Not one, two, tree.” My brother is sure it was him. The anecdote is tightly woven into the story of our pasts, but one of us must be wrong. When we record our personal memories online we open up new possibilities for their verification but we also create different opportunities for their distortion. In subtle ways, internet firms are manipulating our digital memories all the time – and we are often dangerously unaware of it.

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Facebook occasionally gives me a reminder of Mahmoud Tlissy, the caretaker at my former office in Libya who died quietly of pancreatic cancer in 2011 while the civil war was raging. Every so often he sends me a picture of a multicoloured heart via a free app that outlived him. Mahmoud was a kind man with a sardonic sense of humour, a deep smoker’s laugh and a fondness for recounting his wild days as a student in Prague. I am always pleased to be reminded of him, but I feel uncomfortable because I doubt he would have chosen such a naff way to communicate with me after death. Our digital lives will survive us, sending out e-hearts and populating databases long after we have dropped off the census. When we deposit our life memories online, they start to develop lives of their own.

Those who want to limit the extent to which their lives are recorded digitally are swimming against the tide. Internet firms have a commercial interest in encouraging us not only to offload more personal information online, but also to use digital technology to reflect on our lives. Take Face­book, which was developed as a means of communicating but is becoming a tool for remembering and memorialising, too. The first Facebook users, who were university students in 2004, are mostly in their thirties now. Their graduations, first jobs, first loves, marriages and first children are likely to be recorded on the site; friends who have died young are likely to be mourned on it. The website understands that nostalgia is a powerful marketing tool, and so it has released gimmicky tools, such as automated videos, to help people “look back”.

These new online forms of remembrance are becoming popular. On Instagram and Twitter it is common for users to post sentimental old snaps under the hashtag #tbt, which stands for “Throwback Thursday”. Every day, seven million people check Timehop, an app that says it “helps you see the best moments of your past” by showing you old tweets, photos and online messages. Such tools are presented as a way of enriching our ability to relive the past but they are limiting. We can use them to tell stories about our lives, but the pace and structure of the narrative is defined for us. Remembering is an imaginative act, but internet firms are selling nostalgia by algorithm – and we’re buying it.

At their most ambitious, tech companies are offering the possibility of objective and complete insight into our pasts. In the future, “digital memories” could “[enhance] personal reflection in much the same way as the internet has aided scientific investigations”, the computer scientists Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell wrote in the magazine Scientific American in 2006. The assumption is that our complex, emotional autobiographic memories can be captured as data to be ordered, quantified and analysed – and that computer programs could make better sense of them than our own, flawed brains. The pair have been collaborating on a Microsoft Research “life-logging” project since 2001, in which Bell logs everything he has said, written, seen and heard into a specially designed database.

Bell understood that the greatest challenge is finding a way to make digital archives usable. Without a program to help us extract information, digital memories are virtually useless: imagine trying to retrieve a telephone number from a month’s worth of continuous video footage. In our increasingly life-logged futures, we will all depend on powerful computer programs to index, analyse, repackage and retrieve our digital memories for us. The act of remembering will become automated. We will no longer make our “own fictions”.

This might sound like a distant sci-fi fantasy, but we are a long way there. Billions of people share their news and views by email or on social media daily, and unwittingly leave digital trails as they browse the web. The use of tracking devices to measure and record sleep, diet, exercise patterns, health and even mood is increasing. In the future, these comprehensive databases could prove very useful. When you go to the doctor, you might be able to provide details of your precise diet, exercise and sleep patterns. When a relationship breaks down you could be left with many gigabytes of digital memory to explore and make sense of. Did you really ­always put him down? Should you have broken up four years ago? In a few years’ time there could be an app for that.

Our reliance on digital memories is self-perpetuating: the more we depend on computer memories to provide us with detailed personal data, the more inadequate our own minds seem. Yet the fallibility of the human memory isn’t a design flaw, it is one of its best features. Recently, I typed the name of an ex-boyfriend into my Gmail search bar. This wasn’t like opening a box of old letters. For a start, I could access both sides of our email correspondence. Second, I could browse dozens of G-chats, instant messaging conversations so mundane and spontaneous that reading them can feel more like eavesdropping on a former self, or a stranger. The messages surprised me. I had remembered the relationship as short-lived and volatile but lacking any depth of feeling. So why had I sent those long, late-night emails? And what could explain his shorter, no less dramatic replies, “Will u ever speak to me again? You will ignore this I suspect but I love you.” Did he love me? Was I really so hurt? I barely recognise myself as the author of my messages; the feelings seem to belong to someone else.

My digital archives will offer a very different narrative from the half-truths and lies I tell myself, but I am more at home with my fictions. The “me” at the centre of my own memories is constantly evolving, but my digital identity is frozen in time. I feel a different person now; my computer suggests otherwise. Practically, this can pose problems (many of us are in possession of teenage social media posts we hope will never be made public) and psychologically it matters, too. To a greater or lesser extent, we all want to shed our former selves – but digital memories keep us firmly connected to our past. Forgetting and misremembering is a source of freedom: the freedom to reinvent oneself, to move on, to rewrite our stories. It means that old wounds need not hurt for ever, that love can be allowed to fade, that people can change.

With every passing year, we are shackling ourselves more tightly to our digital legacies, and relying more heavily on computer programs to narrate our personal histories for us. It is becoming ever harder to escape the past, or remake the future. Years from now, our digitally enhanced memories could allow us to have near-perfect recall, but who would want to live with their head in the cloud?

Sophie McBain is an NS contributing writer. This article was a runner-up in the 2015 Bodley Head FT Essay Prize

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in New York. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming

The Wu-Tang Clan in 1997: l-r, Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, U-God, GZA, Method Man, with RZA at the front. Credit: BOB BERG/GETTY IMAGES
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Hip-hop’s unhappy families: rappers’ tales of brotherhood and betrayal

Hard knocks and Hollywood adventures in new memoirs by Gucci Mane, Wiley and U-God of the Wu-Tang Clan.

The best pop music is a combination of individualism and unity. The Beatles, for example, earned lasting success as the sum of four very distinct parts. Few genres manage this as successfully as hip-hop, where bands such as NWA and New York’s A$AP Mob have released group albums and solo records. In a music industry run by a handful of corporations, hip-hop was always made up of hundreds of verticals.

A brace of new books act as a bridge between black music’s individuality and brotherhood. The most demonstrative example of rap’s independent streak can be found in The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, a thrilling though often superficial memoir by Radric Delantic Davis. The rapper helped build Atlanta’s “trap” sound on albums such as La Flare, has been to jail on numerous occasions and fought drug addiction for most of his adult life. His autobiography, written two years short of his 40th birthday, is an attempt to grasp the third rail of American life: atonement.

In November 2010, Davis was arrested for driving his Hummer on the wrong side of the road. He was sent to a mental health facility – the reckless driving charge was later dropped. The recording of his 2009 album, The State vs Radric Davis, went into hiatus when he failed a drug test and entered rehab. In its more satisfying moments, The Autobiography of Gucci Mane is defined by a relentless pursuit of self-control. Readers may or may not entirely sympathise: Davis once spent $75,000 on a diamond Bart Simpson chain. The book ends with his release from incarceration in 2016, where he read Malcolm X, Mike Tyson and Deepak Chopra. Davis got sober, shed 80 pounds and married. A film adaptation seems highly likely.

Eskiboy by Richard Kylea Cowie, the British musician known as Wiley, is an unconventional autobiography written by a committed individualist. The book is divided into 96 chapters separated by lyrics and includes contributions from friends and relatives, including his father, his sister and musicians Wretch 32 and Flow Dan. The effect is like watching an old episode of Behind the Music on VH1 or This is Your Life.

Cowie is a grime elder who helped dig the scene’s foundations. He eventually grew weary of London and now lives in Cyprus. Newcomers to songs such as “Wearing My Rolex” will enjoy his occasionally cantankerous opinions on the capital (“this is not a black man’s country”), fatherhood and food (“Yorkshire pudding, my God”), as well as the archaeology around the early years of his first group, Roll Deep. Cowie once released 200 songs online for free and first used MSN Messenger to distribute his music. He turned 39 this year, but Eskiboy reads like the worldview of a veteran.

Twenty-five years ago a New York group released their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It became one of the most consequential hip-hop records of all time, and Raw: My Journey into the Wu-Tang by Lamont “U-God” Hawkins offers a vivid portrait of the group that made it.

Back in 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan’s prestige was initially hard won. While New York’s first wave of rap music excelled at the soldiery of hip-hop – where rappers formed constellations around groups such as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest – the East Coast had been overwhelmed by Californian soloists such as Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg. Enter the Wu-Tang removed hip-hop from the warmth of the sun and returned it to the brownstone tenements of its birth. Released one year after albums by Kriss Kross and Sir Mix-a-Lot, Enter the Wu-Tang depicts a life of defiance born of deprivation. On songs like “Bring Da Ruckus” and “Protect Ya Neck”, the group draws on stories of criminology, an African-American version of Islam called Mathematics and two obsessions, chess and martial arts.

Compared to the digital stutter of rap in 2018, Enter the Wu-Tang sounds antediluvian, with its nine rappers taking turns to deliver eight bars over dense beats. Yet the detuned rhythms of its producer, RZA, can be heard in music by Kanye West, Drake and Odd Future. The group’s core rappers – RZA, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa – are responsible for the largest body of work in the history of hip-hop.

In the seven years between Enter the Wu-Tang and 2000, the Clan and its members released 31 albums and compilations, as well as comics, books and documentaries which have helped shape a universe built on Shaolin and numerology. One of the more poignant biographies from Planet Wu is the 2014 chronicle of the short life of Russell Jones, who died in 2004, aged 35, of a drugs-related heart attack. Jones called himself Ol’ Dirty Bastard, or ODB, “because there ain’t no father to his style”. Outlandish and addicted to drugs to alleviate a host of psychological issues – he once arrived to collect a welfare cheque in a limousine – Jones attracted both tabloid and police scrutiny.

Lamont Hawkins, also known as U-God or U-God Allah, is the latest Wu to publish an autobiography. In the group’s hierarchy, he was never a top-tier rapper, but was part of a second wave who released solo records in the late 1990s. Despite his late arrival, his memoir is the most vivid piece of writing to emerge from the Wuniverse.

Hawkins grew up in a single parent family in Brooklyn and Park Hill on Staten Island. Whenever he inquired about the family patriarch, his mother would reply, “God is your father!” Unlike Mane, who describes being orbited by grandparents, aunts and uncles, Hawkins’s childhood was blighted by black-on-black crime and drugs-related violence. He describes witnessing his first death when he was four years old and watched a woman leap or fall from the roof of an apartment building. “Lovin’ You” by Minnie Riperton was playing on a radio in the street. Hawkins was a member of gangs called Baby Cash Crew, Dick ’Em Down and Wreck Posse. He carried a gun from the ages of 14 to 21 and recalls watching one of his babysitters shooting up heroin on the couch. Years later, Staten Island’s rappers would describe Park Hill as “Killa Hill” in their music. “Dudes would shoot dogs and leave their carcasses behind our building all the time,” writes Hawkins. “It was like a concentration camp for poor black people.”

While Raw is full of the despairing tales that inform the Wu-Tang’s music, it is also fuelled by the gallows humour that runs through albums staffed by fictionalised gangsters called Tony Starks or Lex Diamonds. Hawkins describes watching thieves steal his mother’s handbag on five separate occasions. One day, as she walked him home from school, a young man pulled the jewellery off her ears. Years later, she saw a man on TV who she swore was her attacker – it was Mike Tyson.

Hawkins’s teenage years were a fountainhead of illegal and legal labour. Like Gucci Mane, who describes selling marijuana by the age of 13 (the discovery led his mother to evict him from the family home), a teenage Hawkins was selling crack and making a profit of $2,500 each day. He met his future Clan bandmates before he was 14. In one passage in Raw, he relates how authorities in Park Hill struggled to process the daily body count. He wanted to become an embalmer and applied to study mortuary science before deciding to follow a career in music.

The early years of the Wu-Tang Clan were a maelstrom facilitated by the kind of family grift that usually leads to acrimony. The group already contained RZA’s cousins GZA and ODB, as well as friends such as Cappadonna, a part-time taxi driver. The Clan was managed by RZA’s brother, Mitchell “Divine” Diggs. A third RZA cousin called Mook became their road manager. Mook drove the tour bus and accepted cash-only payments from promoters.

Any attempt at organising the group was futile. On tour, the crew sometimes numbered 60 members. Cappadonna failed to make recording sessions for Enter the Wu-Tang when he was sent to jail. Hawkins was incarcerated four times for parole violations and only managed brief contributions to two tracks. It would be different four years later when the members had all signed to major labels and the Clan’s second album was released, selling 612,000 copies in its first week. Hawkins writes with eye-opening details about how his life changed; at one point, he was dating 12 women.

He also expresses regret at the group’s more lurid behaviour. He describes arriving at a Beverley Hills party after consuming a large quantity of rum; other guests included Leonardo DiCaprio, the rapper Q-Tip and members of Metallica. At the party, Hawkins got into an argument with DiCaprio, Ghostface urinated off a balcony and later destroyed some flowerbeds. A moment of kismet is delivered on another occasion when the Clan reaches Mike Tyson’s house only to discover the world heavyweight boxing champion won’t allow them entry.

For a group of young men who had never left the US, hip-hop also presented an opportunity for travel. A trip to the Colosseum in Rome provided a hilarious awakening. “I thought it would be big like fuckin’ Yankee Stadium, but that place was a Little League arena at best,” writes Hawkins, bitterly. “The reality of it broke my heart. I remember thinking Hollywood had fed me some bullshit with the Gladiator movie and all that about its size.”

The final section of Raw returns to the matter-of-factness of its beginning. In the period between the Wu-Tang Clan’s first and second album, Hawkins’s two-year-old son, Dontae, was shot in one hand and kidney when, during a gunfight, one participant picked him up to use as a human shield. Dontae lost his kidney and has walked with a limp since. “RZA and the others didn’t make it any better, ’cause they didn’t give a fuck,” writes Hawkins.

The Wu-Tang’s once indomitable friendship has occasionally publicly soured over musical differences and financial disagreements. In 2007, the group even embarked on a tour without RZA. He replied with a rival series of solo concerts.

Wiley writes equally frankly about his long-running feud with former Roll Deep rapper Dizzee Rascal. The pair have quarrelled since Rascal was stabbed in Ayia Napa in 2003. “I am a part of why he’s Dizzee,” Wiley writes, offering reconciliation. “And he’s a part of why I am Wiley.”

Hawkins admits that the challenge of competing for space on albums has taken a toll: “Nine MCs going at each other, battling for who gets on the song can lead to some hard feelings.” In the mid-2000s, RZA became a filmmaker and the Clan felt his attention diminish. Hawkins describes Wu Tang-Clan’s 2014 album, A Better Tomorrow, as “some wack shit from start to finish”. In 2016, he sued RZA over unpaid royalties. Hawkins was also absent from last year’s album, The Saga Continues.

It isn’t wholly surprising that a group of middle-aged rappers is often at loggerheads over their direction and legacy. In the final pages of his fearless memoir, Hawkins unexpectedly calls for a renewal of the brotherhood that bent him to its will. “Yeah, we don’t always get along,” he writes, “but what family does?” 

Eskiboy
Wiley
William Heinemann, 352pp, £20

The Autobiography of Gucci Mane
Gucci Mane and Neil Martinez-Belkin
Simon & Schuster, 304pp, £16.99

Raw: My Journey into the Wu-Tang
Lamont “U-God” Hawkins
Faber & Faber, 292pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming