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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Do You Remember Having a Memory?

By Ooi Kee Beng

Editorial, Penang Monthly June 2019

Have you noticed that one easy way to look cool nowadays is to carry a book with you? It can sit leisurely in your hand or be lightly squeezed under your armpit.

And it should preferably be a thick one. And if you don’t have a Dostoyevsky tome at home, and chances of that happening is almost zero if you are a Malaysian under 40 years old, perhaps a Harry Potter will do. Actually, doing anything in public other than staring zombie-like at your smartphone will make you look interesting nowadays.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am a smartphone addict just like most of you are, and any hint of boredom in my mind will start me fumbling for my device. The immediate distractions it affords me are like the last straw that keeps the camel afloat, if I may inverse some metaphors badly.

I thank my countless apps for the many immediate distractions they offer me; I am now never bored since I am no longer left to my own devices, only to the stimuli that my favourite device – my smartphone – pushes upon me. It has monopolized my empty moments – by filling them with messages and information of supposed importance needing supposedly urgent immediate attention.

But there is danger afoot here. Always having easy diversions at hand makes my mind lazy, and it discourages me from looking around for surprises and stimuli in the analogical world around me. I can instead always count on social media or some website to entertain me.

Leaving the faculty of remembering to my iPhone has a precarious downside. What faculty am I now to use to remember where I last put it: Which pocket did I stuff it in? (And God, how many pockets have I got?) When did I last see it, or have it in my palm? Did I leave it behind at the coffee shop, in the toilet, in the car? In my jacket? And where’s my jacket?

There is a lot to be said in favour of a bad memory. Bad things happen; and it is indeed a blessing that I cannot remember half of them, or I would go around traumatised by one or the other unfortunate incident or stupid mistake I make in our life. Outsourcing the act of remembering is like humans learning to tame fire. When we began cooking all those millennia ago, we were outsourcing the most difficult part of digesting to the cooking pot. By doing that, we could eat more, and our jaw and teeth then grew smaller and our brains grew bigger. Now with our big brains, we have made it possible to outsource remembering (and thinking, perhaps). Which organ will diminish in size and which will grow in the coming decades, I don’t know. Whatever the case, my memory is definitely already shrinking.

And heaven help me if I forget to charge the phone overnight. That would leave me crippled for several hours the next morning.

At least there is some use left for whatever memory I still have. Come to think of it, shouldn’t there be an app to remind me to charge my phone? Maybe that’s what the alarm clock app is for, I don’t quite remember. And since I am now in my rare thinking mode, I wonder: Shouldn’t the phone know enough to charge itself when it’s close to empty, if it’s so smart? I must remember to message some chat group about that, and get a copy of Crime and Punishment from Amazon while I’m at it.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


One thought on “Do You Remember Having a Memory?

  1. Lovely to “remember not to forget”. ….and to remind yourself “don’t forget to remember “. …which is easier …a mental exercise. Every best

    Anwar Sent from my iPad


    Posted by Anwar Fazal | June 7, 2019, 11:56 am

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