THE 20TH CENTURY BROUGHT with it a deluge of paper. As American businesses expanded in both number and scale in the wake of the Civil War, so did their printed material; there were graphs, memos, charts, forms, and more correspondence than ever. This “pauperization” eventually spilled into the home, where a rise in personal documentation meant that houses were filling up with bills, letters, tax forms, receipts, birth certificates, recipes clipped from magazines. As these archives ballooned, a new technology rose in popularity: the filing cabinet, whose history the scholar Craig Robertson documents in The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information. One 1918 advertisement described the filing cabinet as “oracle-like” with a “great gigantic memory”: “It is only a bit o’ steel, yet no brain was ever made/That could wholly supersede it with the busy businessman.” The filing cabinet, then, was better than a human brain— it could hold and organize the entire contents of one’s professional and domestic life, broken down into discrete bits of information and made retrievable at will.
Not everyone was happy with the invention. The writer Montrose J. Moses was wary of how filing cabinets externalized personal memory: What would be the consequences of trying to turn every aspect of your life into “information” to be hoarded for later? “You can’t expect yourself to say, when you give your wife the first kiss, ‘File that, my dear, for future reference,’ ” he wrote in 1930.
Nearly a century later, Moses’s anxiety has become our reality. We are constantly turning our lives into data, much of it nonphysical: photographs and screenshots and stray notes, reams of text messages and bookmarked tabs, and other digital detritus. I could tell you with a glance at my iPhone exactly where I was on October 24, 2015, or how many hours of sleep I got last night. This compendium of self-knowledge seems only to expand, prompting our devices to expand along with it: The first iPhone’s maximum storage space was 16 gigabytes, while the newest release offers a terabyte. By now, we may even rely on our devices’ memories so completely that we’ve lost our ability to recall things without them. But the contents of our digital memories have themselves grown unwieldy, fractured across multiple devices and accounts, impossible to process.
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