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Nostalgia 2.0

If there were one thing that we could never outsource, it would have to be our memories. Personal, intimate, and unique, memories are a part of us that not even the ruthless efficiencies of computer code can improve. Nor could these precious memories be commodified in any way.

Or can they? A niche tech industry is seeking to give memory a twenty-first-century spin by “automating” nostalgia—and the results are already appearing in our Facebook timelines. “A daily replay of your past” is how the Timehop app is described. It surfs the user’s old photos and posts from his or her social networks, and serves them back up as a personalized “today in history”—a kind of tailor-made time capsule.

Until now, the digital revolution has been commonly characterized as a place of speed and transience; now, as software starts to rewire every aspect of our lives, some companies are cashing in on the idea that it can just as easily be the opposite. Like ’60s-style Insta-filters for our digital photos, retro gaming consoles, or wireless speakers shaped like gramophones, Timehop is part of a trend of emerging tech that tries to collapse time, to create an ongoing “historic present.”

But this is still a networked revolution, and so nostalgia must be networked, too. “There are a lot of products out there that are based around reliving memories,” says the CEO of Memoir, an app which checks your digital memories against your friends’ to determine whether there might be anything shareable. “What we are very much focused on is making it a multiplayer experience”.

Perhaps such networking is inevitable. After all, Facebook has already effectively crowdsourced the photo album, by putting our photos on public display. But Nostalgia 2.0 appears to also be part of the post-Enlightenment quest to “reveal” the world to us through our data—mining our memories to make them searchable. Memoir has even been called a “search engine for your life.” What’s being created, consciously or not, is a kind of Google Map of your past.

But Google doesn’t primarily make maps; it makes money. Faced with the question of revenue, Jonathan Wegener of Timehop suggests that “the nostalgic moment could be parlayed into the transactional moment,” speculating that brands might “buy up” certain days or years in the past so they show up in your timelines (your kid was born on June 29? Guess what—that was also the day Apple birthed the iPhone). Just as Facebook and Twitter have let marketers monetize our timelines, the space between our memories is now potentially up for grabs. Hooray for networked capitalism.

On a basic level, nostalgia apps seem like they can be a lot of fun, just like the social networks they draw from. But outsourcing our memories to algorithms gives these apps a kind of passive, silent power. As Memoir’s CEO puts it, “Can I just leave the phone in my pocket and it’s making sense of my life and collaboratively getting memories from the people around me?”

Practically speaking, such digital mind-reading requires massive amounts of “data exhaust,” making privacy as much a concern with regard to our socially mediated pasts as it is in the socially mediated present. (Timehop’s Wegener enthuses that truly intelligent memory apps will need not just our Facebook profiles but our texts, wearable fitness trackers, even credit card swipes.) That puts great powers in the hands of programmers to apply their own tweaks and trials on our personal information. Imagine something like Facebook’s notorious 2012 emotional manipulation experiment applied to our memories. Stalinism via Silicon Valley?

This new nostalgia industry may begin to alter us in ways we never imagined—its stated goals are no less grand than the redesign of the human mind. “No one is happy with their meat brain,” says Phil Libin of Evernote, an archiving service whose casually stated mission is to update sloppy human memory and replace it with an improved digital version (“your brain offloaded to a server”). New research from neuroscience suggests our mental recall is already being rewired by digital devices, being softened by these tools’ ease and reliability. Plato once worried that the invention of writing would displace our ability to remember anything. Why bother trying to remember anything when we know we’ll be able to Google it later?

But perhaps this luxury of an immortal, searchable, outsourced digital memory is just a fantasy. Some believe that energy shortages, security breaches, or technological obsolescence may someday wipe it all away. Non-profits like Chronicle of Life now offer a kind of “Noah’s Album,” which charges customers a high price to preserve a small number of photos against a looming memory-geddon.

In the Soviet era, people used to joke that the future was certain, but the past was unreliable; these days we might say that nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be.