Footprints in the Snow

November 19, 2017 | 2 books mentioned 6 9 min read

1.

This will delete all the media and data, and reset all settings, my phone warned me.

Yes.

Are you sure to continue? All the media, data, settings will be deleted. This cannot be undone.

Yes, I know. I’m also aware that my phone hasn’t been backed up for three months, because my free iCloud library is already full. Which means when I get a new phone and restore the data from my cloud, my phone can only remember what happened until this May. It will be greeted with few recollections of what happened and a strong sense of emptiness. Three months’ memory mysteriously gone, buried deep in an inaccessible corner of the old phone, only to be either completely pulverized when the unusable hardware is crushed or split into pieces when segments are recycled. The memory will become the shadow of someone else’s, a heart pumping for another body.

What about me? How about my three months’ memory? On which date does the clock of my memory stop ticking?

I visit the store and get a replacement. My new phone looks exactly the same as the old one. If I were willing to pay for a bigger cloud storage, I would be able to retrieve all my data from the cloud and my transition between phones would be seamless. But I’ve lost three months’ worth of memory. When I stare at the screen of my new phone, I feel like I am looking at a familiar face, as if I am watching a slightly younger self in last year’s birthday photo. The layout looks a little different: some apps are missing, the photo library is empty, my favorite songs, calculated by the music player, look slightly different. I have gone through some minor changes during those three months, but exactly how I can no longer recall. Clumsily, I download Netflix and a few photos from another cloud server in an attempt to piece together a semblance of the new self that I’ve become. But I am no longer the “I” I would have become if I hadn’t absent-mindedly spilled half a bottle of water in my bag and ruined my phone.

Is it true that my data—the pictures I’ve taken, the history of my search engines, the music I’ve liked—have become my new memory, or, at least, a new form of access to my memory? When I am holding the dear dear phone in my hand, am I actually holding my life, my brain, and my soul?

What an unsettling thought.

2.
A few years ago, I can’t remember the exact date, I went on a two-day trip to Suzhou with my best friend. We’d known each other for seven years by then, but we had drifted apart as we stepped into adulthood. To patch things up, I suggested (or was it she?) that we revisit Suzhou together.

There are two Suzhous—one restrained and fragile, a dreamy reflection of history, the other shambling and disjointed, a cacophony of instinct and irrationality. As we rode our rented bikes along the streets and across the bridges, hundreds of steely bicycles, electric motorcycles, and fuming motorbikes screeched past me like arrows. I felt like I was a character in a video game whose rules I had yet to grasp. But my friend was fearless: she pedaled hard, with every step, I could see her calf bulging beneath her jeans. Sunglasses pushed high up on her forehead, her black long hair floating in the wind, in no time she was at least a mile ahead of me, all I could do was gasp for breath and pick up my speed yet again, following her to make turns and dive into streets and lanes whose names I didn’t have time to remember. And then all of a sudden, the bustling vehicles receded from me and it seemed we had entered a quiet boulevard; there were old yellowing plane trees stretching out on both sides. Under the soft daylight sifting down through the web of leaves and branches, my small, powerful friend slid down the slope, and I could feel the breeze pouring into me.

I’d love to take a picture of this moment, I remember thinking to myself.

The idea grew along with the realization of its impossibility. A car could rush around the corner any minute; it would be dangerous to call her to turn back. My phone and camera were inside the tote bag tucked in the bike basket; what’s more, we were moving forward, in the middle of the “present.” In that fleeting moment, time overwhelmed me with its irresistible will to move on.

Well, then I will remember it really hard, with my best effort, I thought to myself. I’d like to remember it for the rest of my life.

Every time I try to recollect this moment now, I remember not only the soft and warm canopies against the sky, the back of my friend’s blouse wrinkled by movements, but the ardent desire to grasp the scorching moment and brand it into my memory.

3.
I had a dream this spring. In the dream there were a few peach trees in full blossom, and I was somewhat younger, urging someone in the dream to take photos of me in front of the trees. This is something I would do and have done in real life, asking people to capture an ordinarily beautiful or beautifully banal moment. Smart phones have made it so easy: they squeeze slices of time into brightly colored cans and stack them in a vending machine. In my dream, I checked the photos and was satisfied with several of them. The elation felt so real: I took more delight in having taken the pictures than having seen the flowers. And then with a mild spasm of joy, I woke up.

You understand that I had to check my phone first, don’t you? My mind was still fogged by the illusion, and I still felt a glimmer of hope that I could find the photos in my photo library. But as I reached for the cold metal, my dream was sucked back into invisible pipes and, drop by drop, it returned to the dark pond of unconsciousness.

coverA strange feeling rose in me, disbelief and disappointment. Before this dream, the abstraction and physical inaccessibility of dream or memory had completely escaped me. For a second, utterly shocked, I sat against the headboard, awed at the seemingly elastic but utterly unyielding line between the concrete and the abstract, the physical and the spiritual. That I couldn’t export my dream photos sounded ridiculous in my brain, as if someone had played a prank on me. Last winter I re-watched The Ghost in the Shell, a famous Japanese sci-fi animation film featuring a female cyborg, Motoko, who is engaged in a seemingly hopeless search for her identity. I guess watching engineers plugging colorful wires into the little round holes on the back of Motoko’s neck influenced my way of thinking, and I subconsciously thought this fictional imagination had already become true. Far from being wary of devices, I welcome the things they could do for me. I find myself toying with the ideas of implanting microchips or flash disks into my body, or even sticking my head into photocopiers. Needless to say, my understanding of the accessing of memory, even my understanding of memory itself, has been shaped by my relationship with machines. If I have learned anything from living with these silent creatures, it is that they are highly accessible, reliable, and, above all, accurate.

But what is memory, if not a bundle of errors, a poem covered with edits? Let me try to remember the act of “remembering.” As if someone has switched up a film projector, a scene is cast into my mind, a scene to which I find myself frequently returning. I remember that day when a plum-flavored candy got stuck in my throat. I was five, or maybe younger. My parents and I were living in an old classroom at the back of the campus where my mother worked, waiting to be relocated. Several classrooms aligned in a row, facing a makeshift brick wall. A candy was luxury in those days. I let it linger on my tongue, rolled it greedily, until it tumbled down and ended up between the tender walls of my throat. I must have gasped for help, since my mother immediately came and grabbed my ankles. Before I realized it, I was dangling upside down from her wrists, following her instructions to cough the candy out of my mouth. But these are nothing but a logical deduction, based on what I see when I try to remember the episode: a collage of pictures, superimposed upon one another. Somehow they look like a series of footage shot from different angles and by different cameras: The dark glimmering concrete floor feints and parries the thrust of my face. Sweat beads my mother’s forehead. Through the colored windows of the classroom, a woman can be seen dangling a child as if she’s emptying a schoolbag. Wait a second: Whose eyes are observing us through the colored windows? Who is the wordless third party in this scene?

It’s me. I am the person standing outside the classroom by the wall. In my memory, I have become the intruder, the Peeping Tom, the spy. Who is this ageless, genderless “I?” Intuitively I recognize this person as the fusion of my present and past selves as I attempt to remember. It is a projection of repeated remembrances. Remembering is like stepping onto an impeccable snow field; you can never visit it without leaving footprints. Neuroscientists have proved that memory-making process “needs new proteins … (and) requires some cellular construction,” that “every memory begins as a changed connection between two (isolated) neurons.” Remembrance takes place on an empty ground known as “synaptic clefts;” every connection is a makeshift project, an imitation of the last one with varying degrees of loyalty. When it comes to remembering, our brain is designed to blunder.

4.
Last winter, in a class with students from a design and technology concentration, a girl nicknamed Chao introduced me to her project, a user interface featuring an intelligent personal assistant. I have forgotten its name. Let’s call it Harry.

Chao had recruited dozens of volunteers to participate in her project. She told them they were communicating directly with Harry, in fact it was her who was chitchatting with them. She wanted to see whether it was possible for human beings to develop an attachment with an AI.

For the first few days, Chao said, Harry would aim to build trust with participants, inviting them to share jokes and personal anecdotes, even their saddest memories with her.

coverLike the movie Her? I said.

Exactly. What I am looking for is a workable plot: in the end, the system, that is to say, me, will inform the participants that due to a bug or whatever, Harry suffers a total loss of memory and won’t be able to recollect any conversations with the participants, even to recognize them. I want to know, Chao looked at me, with her perfectly-lined eyes, will they feel upset, disappointed, even hurt a little bit by the amnesia of the machine?

What does the memory of the machine look like in the first place? An artificial intelligence, after talking to thousands of interface users for over 10 years, will have what we humans consider to be a mammoth quantity of materials. When it recalls someone it has talked to, the AI will be indiscriminative, remembering each and every user with equal clarity, whereas we always remember someone better than another, our memory colored by preferences and biases. The memory of the machine is one-dimensional—Emma Bovary’s eyes will have only one color, and we will know for sure where Albertine’s beauty mark lies—it has neither perspective, nor depth.

Nowadays, I remember not the meaning of a word but its location on the Internet. Instead of paragraphs of notes, I remember key words for the search engine and its rank on the result list. My relationship with the world has shrunk from excerpts of a dictionary to excerpts of a table of contents; my memory has been replaced by a list of hyperlinks. When I try to recall the silhouette of Manhattan in sunset, I shiver a little, as a string of fluid ghostly shadows flow past my mind. Then the location of a photo capturing that very scene occurs to me, and I rest assured, as if I have recovered a piece of myself, so I stop remembering. It is true that revisiting the snow ground of the past incur damages with scrambling imprints, but if you stop visiting it altogether and take satisfaction in gazing at the picture of the snow, you will never be able to find your way back to the place.

What I find most intriguing about Chao’s project is that she is trying to think like a machine. The conversations have to be perfect; they shouldn’t be too human, I remember her emphasizing. Yes, you are right, there has to be a quality of machine-ness, I nodded, but I was also thinking: in the beginning, we build machine to imitate human brain, and what we are doing here, is the imitation of the imitation.

Chao wants to gauge the possible attachment between machine and human, but for me, it looks like she is trying to find out how much damage it can bring us. A child throws stones into a well out of the desire to know how deep it is, and how badly it will hurt if one falls down to the bottom.

Erasing the data on my phone actually felt like a dramatic moment, the climax of our relationship. (When I brought it for the technician to examine, he joked: Actually two weeks from now it will be your first year anniversary.)

Do you want to delete all the media and data, and reset all settings?

Do you want to delete all my memories?

Do you want to delete all our memories?

Do you want to delete yourself?

The tip of my heart fluttered like a hummingbird. I knew what would happen to my phone, but I didn’t know what would happen to me, how my life was going to be altered, or whether my future would be rewritten. And I didn’t know how to face a loss like this.

My fingers tapped out the password, and clicked “Yes” several times.

Image Credit: Flickr/Andrei Niemimäki.

was born and raised in Chengdu, China. She is a fiction/non-fiction writer and literary translator. Currently studying creative writing at The New School, she is working on a memoir of a competitive mother-daughter relationship changed and understood through their storytelling.

6 comments:

  1. I was going to come on here just to complain about the awful new format of this website (which is totally and absolutely awful). Then I saw this piece and started reading it. Wow, this the best thing published on here in a loooooong time. New School kids never disappoint (well, sometimes they do, but not this time). This author clearly has a lot going for her, and I look forward to seeing how her debut novel turns out.

  2. I must second the objection to this new format. I’ve been reading this site since 2007 – please switch back to the old format or find a more intuitive one, if you feel like it needs to look more contemporary. This layout is terrible and disorienting.

  3. Thirded. Please change back to the old format, this is really awful. I guess I would ask: what benefits do The Millions feel the new format provides over the old one?

  4. Utterly beautiful essay. I often think when I see people with their phones out snapping pictures, and then heads back down texting away, when did we stop looking? Memory is ephemeral, maybe that is better than not being in the moment when it happened.

    I hope I get used to the new format because I don’t like it.

  5. The new format is great. It makes the articles much easier to read, and makes it easier to see and find the different types of features that The Millions provides. Well done.

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