Don't Speak, Memory

If the information age doesn't shut up soon, all our best stories will be ruined

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Illustration by Tomasz Walenta for TIME

Don't speak, Memory. If the information age doesn't shut up soon, all our best stories will be ruined.

I've always been proud that my columns are 100% accurate, which isn't all that hard since I write only about me. But it turns out that I'm an awful source. I get dates and places wrong. I replace former girlfriends with my lovely wife Cassandra in many stories, despite the fact that after 14 years together it would be far more exciting to do the opposite. I know about these errors because camp friends e-mail me corrections, IMDb.com shows that the movie I thought Cassandra and I went to see together had left theaters before we met, and the mullet photos of me on the Internet prove that I could not have lost my virginity at 17.

A guy I was interviewing told me a story he has told hundreds of times over several decades: He was about to have sex for the first time, realized he needed music and jumped out of bed to put on Chicago's first album. As they started, he heard the first track, which was a recorded chant from the 1968 Democratic National Convention: "The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!" which added a lot of pressure. As he was telling me this, I loaded the album on Spotify. That chant doesn't appear until track 10. Unless he was completely unlike every other boy who has lost his virginity, there is absolutely no chance he even got to track two.

It is a universal truth among journalists that nothing ruins a story like reporting. You hear an insane fact, like Newt Gingrich is still running for President. A few phone calls later, you find out he's actually just sleeping 13 hours a day and forgetting to take his name off ballots. The problem is, our own personal stories are now being reported. That night we fell in love instantly with our spouse? There's a wall post on our Facebook Timeline and a Gmail to our best friend about how we weren't sure if we wanted a second date. If I tell my son that I walked six miles in the snow to school, he'll GPS it on his Google Goggles and tell me it was only 1.7 miles. Then he'll spend a lot of time on Wikipedia trying to figure out what this pre-global-warming "snow" stuff was.

My dad recently dug up some 16-mm films from my childhood, and I realized all kinds of things I was sure of from photos and stories were wrong: my house was smaller, we vacationed in different places, my dad's family was around more, my mom dressed inappropriately, and people in the early 1970s were unable to make any noise whatsoever. My son won't have to dig up old movies since, like every other parent I know, I have 10 iPhone photos of him from every hour I've been with him. Not because I love him. Because I'm bored.

If, as Nietzsche said, truth is merely our irrefutable error and if the Internet is a huge refuting machine, then we're all running out of truths. For all of history, we've knitted facts together until they formed stories that fit our identity. Now there will be no more Jay Gatsbys, no more Don Drapers. Which means there will be nothing for the 1% to talk about at parties. It also means that we'll have our confidence crushed by facing our actual selves instead of the characters we've built through our false stories. Sure, all of this was said in The Iceman Cometh in 1939, but that was a long, depressing play. People will actually notice this, because it will come in two-minute YouTube clips in which there are no characters besides ourselves.

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