It seems we all carry around at least one memory of an event, action, facial expression or even just an attitude or a state of mind that never actually took place. Fake memories are remarkably easy to implant too, if you set about putting them there deliberately. So it’s unsurprising that so much legal difficulty is inherent in the pursuit of historical abuse cases, or that a domestic row can ensue over what someone may have said or not said on a wet Tuesday afternoon in November 1996. We are used to dealing with and circumventing the unreliability of the human memory. But the question of why we have this, from an evolutionary perspective, does not have an easy answer. A theory I heard recently is that it enables more cohesive social structures in the present by rewriting an angst-ridden past to be more consistent with your current commitments, thus enabling the continuance of social structures that will help perpetuate the species. So that holiday, when you lost all your baggage at the airport and your partner consoled himself at the all inclusive beer tap from eleven o’clock each day, was actually a laugh, looking back. Or that guy, who looked like Rik Mayall and did a very bizarre version of Snoop Dogg’s Gin And Juice in the first bar you walked into at one in the afternoon in that strange town where you missed your parents but didn’t want them there either, actually summed up how you were feeling at the time.
There has been a lot of coverage recently of issues surrounding artificial intelligence and whether one day intelligent machines might one day pose a threat to humans. Let’s be clear. The grandchildren of everyone reading this will be long dead before that’s even a remote possibility. Software is premised on our understanding of computers, not on our understanding of the human brain: that understanding is still primitive at best. We really don’t know why it does what it does. In the meantime, software falls into two categories: performing tricks or getting work done. Educational fashion seems currently to be getting these two categories mixed up. An augmented reality app that turns a wall display into a talking head doesn’t necessarily teach anybody anything: it just looks good. And database apps (applications FFS) are becoming increasingly less popular, and difficult to find on ‘app stores’, but they still run the world, including your bank account and your mortgage. Problem is, they look shit and don’t perform graphically. No brainer.
When your phone or your desktop computer or your laptop or your tablet or your games console or your smart TV or your Sky box or your car tell you that they they’re having a ‘blob day’ and that they’ll probably be OK tomorrow, or when they go offline for several hours and get the fridge to cover for them while they make you a birthday card, then we’re in trouble. Perhaps. In the meantime I’m happy to write reality. That’s what we’re good at.