Experiences in Memory Space
— Speculative Fiction, Hopepunk — 20 min read
This short speculative fiction was initially published in - Stories from (Un)Identified Worlds: A Speculative Anthology. A project from the Fall 2022 Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society Research Sprint focused on Digital Identity in Times of Crisis. It is republished here by the author, although the entire anthology which includes 8 stories and accompanying author interviews is well worth a read.
Helena is still buzzing from the gig. Wow, what a performance! Two hours of pure madness in a small, intimate venue. You can always trust the Dub Pistols to put on a show. Their frontman is a nutter in the best kind of way. On her way out, she sees a charity vinyl being offered at the merch stand. Awesome, she thinks, what a great way to memorialise this experience. She completes the purchase, takes possession of the vinyl, and mints an identifier that she uses to claim root authority over the vinyl’s memory space. She loves that treasured possessions like records now often come with spaces for people to record and remember their histories. It has added an extra layer of meaning onto these items and makes for a great gift.
The provenance of the vinyl as authentic memorabilia is attested to by both the venue and the band. Helena further strengthens these claims by attaching her ticket and purchase of the item into the space’s initialisation phase. She now has both an old-school vinyl and a digital memory space bound to, and discoverable through, the record’s physicality. For the moment, she is the sole member of this memory space—although artists have begun to leave their own unique impressions within these types of spaces. Sure enough, this space already contains a message of gratitude from both the band and the charitable cause the record supports: supporting mental health through music.
Helena notices the option to set up a media catcher within the vinyl’s memory space; she has heard of these but has never had the opportunity to try them before. She engages the media catcher and it starts collecting and persisting any digital content produced during the event from the venue, the band, and all the party goers—assuming they chose to share. Event tickets provide a special authorization that can be attached to published digital content, enabling media catchers to verify and index these memories. Of course, that does mean collecting a whole bunch of chaff, raw unprocessed data inputs gathered from a myriad of perspectives throughout the night. That’s fine, though; Helena is pretty sure there will already be folks working on a subjective memory mod that will turn these raw inputs into a pretty sweet immersive experience to be enjoyed in the future. An augmented remembrance.
The next day, Helena personalises the memory space further, adding her own unique touch by recording a special message for her friend, Torkel. She then adds a claimable memory gardener authorization and sets off to Torkel’s place. When he mints an identifier and uses it to introduce himself to the record’s memory, he will be able to claim this authorization and take control over how the memories of this record evolve into the future. After all, he will technically be its owner—although the world is slowly moving away from the outdated, westernised conception of ownership. Helena has started using steward, or memory gardener, acknowledging the responsibilities that come with managing an artifact’s memory. It is going to make a wicked gift.
Torkel sits on the bench by the fountain in the spot that has become the de facto library, virtually represented in the park’s memory space and populated with the books on local residents’ shelves. It is remarkable, the breadth of books available from such a small population sample. The interlibrary exchanges that are being trialled will only add to the diversity of content available through this park’s virtual library. Today, Torkel is borrowing a very special book, Kim Stanely Robinson’s Blue Mars. It is the last in an epic trilogy that explores, in rich and nuanced depth, the effects on society as humanity colonises Mars over a period of more than two centuries. It’s a cult classic of this era in part because of the extensive treatment of memory within its pages, as it contemplates what might happen to human memory if lifespans were extended by centuries. Torkel can’t wait to read the last instalment.
A cheerful-looking old lady walks over, waving, and sits next to him.
“Hi there, I’m Amore. This for you, then?” she says, bringing out the book from her bag.
“Hey, I’m Torkel. Pleased to meet you.” Seeing the book, Torkel’s smile grows wider. “Yep, that is the one. Thank you! I can’t wait to get stuck in. How did you find it?”
“You are in for a treat. Trust me. I’m just sad it’s all over now, although the book’s memory space had some intriguing recommendations for what to read next to fill the void.”
She hands over the book and its memory space flickers into his augmented memory overlay, asking for an identifier. Torkel takes a moment to appreciate the heft of the book in his hand, and then instructs his overlay to identify himself to the book’s memory space using his local library identifier. Using this identifier, he claims the authorizations associated with the “current reader” role. Before confirming, he is presented with a simple memory responsibilities checklist, which he briefly reviews before accepting. This is standard practice; he has seen this list the last hundred times he has borrowed a book through memory space. His memory overlay would notify him if any changes had been made since he last viewed it.
“Thank you so much!” Torkel exclaims.
“My pleasure. I am just glad to see books spend more time away from folks’ shelves and in readers’ hands and thoughts. There is so much knowledge, insight and meaning hidden within a book’s pages. They are their own special carrier of memory in so many ways.”
As the old lady is about to leave, Torkel turns and on a whim asks Amore if she would like to grab a coffee.
Amore turns and smiles, a kindly face that reminds him of his grandma.
“Why, that would be lovely, my dear. All this digital stuff is great, but you can’t beat authentic human connection. I can tell you all about life before memory spaces, if you like.”
“I’d enjoy that. I bet you have some stories to tell. Oh, have you heard about the upcoming festival of memories being organised in this park? Last year was the first time it was put on, and it was awesome. You should totally come!” replies Torkel enthusiastically.
And so they walked off together to explore each other’s human memory spaces—the seeds of a new friendship and the opportunity to forge shared, intergenerational understandings.
Memory spaces have expanded beyond just persisting the interactions of a closed, invite-only set of known and mutually-trusting parties. The idea that presence and co-location within a bounded physical region can act as both a trigger and an access point for digital information has led to a Cambrian explosion of uses, ideas, and experiments. Some of the most exciting revolve around facilitating new publics within which communities, connection, and discourse can flourish. The results have had varying success, but these spaces are widely credited with cultivating seeds of change which, in some places, have begun to bloom into responsible, resilient, and resourceful place-based communities.
Memory spaces haven’t solved any of the challenges of human social interaction; they have merely provided new places for these interactions to be recorded. It is an experiment, or rather thousands of experiments, each evolving within its own local context and shaped by those who choose to participate. The hope is that the useful patterns bubble up and ripple outwards across memory space.
Amore strolls down the path, heading towards the community hub in the centre of the park. After hearing about the festival of memories the previous week, she has become increasingly interested in the idea of not only attending, but helping to make the festival more welcoming and inclusive for the older generations with whom she identifies.
She has just about managed to figure out how to use the park’s library, opening up her extensive collection of sci-fi to the local community and seeing the joy it brings to those who borrow her books. But many of her friends, whom she meets up with for a regular natter, dismiss the idea of participating in memory spaces with phrases like:
“That’s for the younger generation. I could never learn how to use all that fiddly technology,” or, “It hurts my brain just hearing you talk about it.”
Amore wishes they would keep an open mind, although she has to admit they do have a point. People spend far too much time focusing on what the technology can do and not nearly enough on what it could do for and with people. The interface into memory space is not always intuitive.
The community hub is abuzz with activity when she arrives—a youthful crowd, she can’t help but notice. After being offered tea and chatting with a few other attendees, Amore settles into her seat in the opening circle. When her turn comes to speak, she tentatively stands up and introduces herself.
“Hello everyone, I’m Amore Bora, a retired actress and part-time painter. I love the park’s new library. Just the other day, I met a lovely young man who wanted to borrow one of my sci-fi books, and we ended up spending a couple of hours getting to know each other over a coffee. It was fantastic. He is the one who told me about this festival of yours, and I have to say, it sounds like a wonderful idea.”
Amore pauses and looks around the circle, seeing attentive, kind faces looking up at her. Taking confidence from these faces, she continues.
“The reason I am here today is to ask you to consider how your festival of memories could work harder to include my generation. Speaking from experience, us old folk often feel lonely and isolated from a world that has changed beyond our recognition. But we want to participate and have so much to give. Don’t let your memory spaces be another technology that overlooks and unintentionally excludes us. Your festival of memories should be a festival for all people and a celebration of the spaces they inhabit and the connections they have in the real world. I want to see if I can help make people of all ages and walks of life central to the festival of memories and the spaces it celebrates.”
Amore sits down shyly, worried she may have spoken for too long.
“Hear, hear!” someone exclaims, and a round of applause spreads through the room.
The rest of the meeting sails by. Amore has participated in community groups in the past, but she hasn’t experienced anything quite like this before. She is used to seeing them devolve into bickering or having the conversation dominated by a few white males. Instead, refreshingly, she feels heard and welcome.
The other attendees recognise her concerns and listen to her ideas with interest. These involve using people as bridge to and guide through memory space, bringing memories to life for others through story, art, and creative play.
Amore leaves with rather more than she anticipated: a role in a crew of five people who all share her desire to improve the accessibility of memory space and the festival of memories. Ted, their memory space wizard, configures a collaborative memory space for the project using the latest mods from the OpenMemoryMod repository. Then, he helps them all initialise identifiers and complete something he calls a “proof of humanity” protocol. He explains that this is to leverage the fact that the group’s relationships were initiated in the real world, and the identifiers that represent the group members in this memory space have been mutually and verifiably bound to them through the meeting. Then the festival organisation committee endorses the memory space, adding a portal to it from the festival’s overarching organisation memory space, which will be accessible from any of the posters that are being created to advertise the festival.
All of this is a bit technical for Amore, although she recognises its value as a signpost to their work and a place to coordinate activity. Ted is excited about the ability to collaboratively manage funds for the project through this infrastructure. Amore is just pleased that they have agreed on a regular in-person meeting time to move the work forward.
Helena jumps on one of the electric buses, heading to Torkel’s new place across the city. Thankfully, as car ownership has reduced, the traffic jams that used to clog up the roads and slow vehicles to a crawl have become a thing of the past. Buses are now a reliable and pleasant mode of transport. After settling into her seat, she connects her interface with the bus’s memory space, and through this space, subscribes to the open, dynamic, ephemeral hive mind. Her interface starts exchanging messages in the form of privacy-preserving expressions with the others on the bus that are subscribed to the hive mind. Through this, the informational content displayed on her interface’s feeds is recalibrated with the directed attention expressed by others. These hive minds provide a content curation mechanism whose outputs are pluggable into many of the information spheres that Helena is active in.
Helena doesn’t fully understand the process, but she has been satisfied with the results. Neither Helena nor any other entity can control who gets on the bus and chooses to subscribe to the hive mind at any given moment. She has to admit there is a beauty to using the randomness inherent in human beings navigating the built environment as a bridge between the isolated information bubbles that emerge when they self-select their communities. This is especially true when algorithms reinforce these groupings and categorisations, solidifying human bias. Helena can still remember the divided and fragmented societies of the ’20s; it was not a pleasant time. Her professor described the transition to ephemeral hive minds as a shift away from architectures based on “identify, predict, and control” towards “trust, possibility, and emergence.” Helena smiles as she remembered his favourite saying echoing around her mind in his booming voice:
“Helena, isn’t it time we start trusting ourselves to pilot our own spaceship to the future, powered by our memories and how we choose to remember them?”
He was an enthusiastic, brilliant mind.
Elvi considers the tree through her subjective memory overlay. It seems to shimmer, alive with the ideas of thinkers who have passed by, each an invitation and a doorway into a distinct memory space. Each of these spaces is unconstrained by the physical proximity requirements for participation encoded into the park’s memory space. After all, an idea does not have a physical manifestation; it exists only in the minds of those who think about it.
She opens a connection to one of the spaces and her perspective shifts. She settles down under the tree and begins to absorb the system of thought produced by the community of individuals maintaining intellectual interaction within the space. Within this idea’s memory space, her identifier is well-known and widely respected. When she makes contributions, others pay attention – mostly because, in the past, she has made some thoughtful and well-considered contributions to the discussion.
She loves these spaces because of their unpredictability. Anyone can stumble across this idea through any number of memory portals dispersed across memory spaces around the world, or they could simply be introduced to the space by a friend or colleague. Here, people are primarily known through the contributions they have made. There is a concerted attempt to remove the power and privilege that has influenced and constrained many thought collectives throughout history. In idea spaces, you are judged on your ideas and how you articulate them. It is a refreshing escape from the ivory towers so often found in academia.
Helena steps off the bus and walks down the path towards Torkel’s place, an unimposing, elegant new building in a peaceful neighbourhood. It’s one of the first houses to come with its own memory space as part of a new initiative by the government. These memory spaces are designed to record building standards and the entities who claim to have met them during construction, all the way down to the provenance of the building materials used. These records of the house’s integrity and history have become increasingly desirable when purchasing a house. While these practices have not completely prevented cowboy builders, they have at least provided a mechanism to hold them to account. Building standards have dramatically improved since the start of the twenty-first century, the housing stock of which everyone knows to avoid to this day.
The idea to give a house memory originated from student tenants as a mechanism to hold their landlords to account. For too long, landlords had been abusing their positions of power in the rental market to screw tenants over. Helena still remembers the mouldy flat she had to endure during university. Her landlord was dismissive of her complaints, safe in the knowledge that next year would bring a new tenant, a clean slate, and another bucket load of cash. It was a disgrace.
Torkel opens the door before Helena even has a chance to ring the bell.
“Hey, so glad you could make it. Been a while!”
“Too long. Hey, I got you a little something. Consider it an early gift for your thirtieth and a thank you for all the tunes you have played me over the years. You’re officially getting old,” Helena says, smiling as she steps inside.
Helena brings the vinyl out of her bag and hands it to Torkel. Grinning, he pulls her into an embrace.
“Wow, thanks! You shouldn’t have.”
Then Torkel heads for the record player in the living room, gesturing for Helena to follow.
As the tune starts to blast out of the speakers, Helena settles into her favourite spot on his sofa and lets the music wash over her.
After a while, Torkel disappears and then reappears, holding two beers.
“Cheers” he says, offering Helena one.
Over the beer, Helena starts to describe her night, displaying the content from the record’s memory space on Torkel’s projector as she does so. Once finished, she invites Torkel to claim root authority over the space.
“So cool!” he exclaims. “I have always wondered about the stories some of my records would tell if they could. Well, soon maybe they will be able to.”
Torkel snaps a photo of the two of them and adds this to the record’s memory space, then introduces the record to his music collection.
“I wonder about that too. On the way over, my feeds were full of talk about the work of Dr. Elvi Spes. Have you heard of her before?”
“Nope, don’t think so.”
“Well, she has some wild ideas about how memory space creates a new substrate for life to inhabit, and she speculates about the ability to give these spaces personalities and perceive them as independent, living beings. Here, let me send you the article I was reading.”
“Thanks. Sounds kinda creepy,” says Torkel, laughing. “Although, come to think of it, I already interface with my music collection through a personalised virtual assistant.” Torkel shrugs.
“Whoa, just imagine an AI like that ChatGPT thing acting as an interface to the memories in these spaces!” exclaims Helena.
“Shit, yeah,” Torkel pauses, taking a moment to imagine the implications, his eyes opening wide in wonderment. “That would be mad. Perhaps it isn’t as far away as we think.”
Helena and Baylor walk hand in hand down the path. The late autumn trees paint a canvas of rich reds, oranges and yellows with their leaves—a delight to behold. It is one of their favourite times of year. Birds chirp their melodies and the leaves gently rustle in the breeze. In the distance, wind turbines gracefully carve through the air, a recent and welcome addition to their landscape that he has come to think of as a forest of futuristic trees, beautiful in their own way.
They sit down on a bench and engage their inter-subjective memory overlay. They are getting old, and this has helped them feel young, or at least to appreciate the life they have lived. Shared. Twenty-five years together. The world has changed so much since they were young. Coming back to places of the past brings back so many memories. Place has always been a trigger for human memory; these days, it also triggers the recall of digital memories recorded over the years and attached to private memory capsules bound to artifacts like this bench. Their bench. They have been here so many times over the years; without these augmented memories, they would struggle to distinguish between the individual moments peppered throughout their shared past.
Thanks to the memory capsule they have maintained in this bench’s memory space, as well as the inter-subjective memory overlay they are immersed within, they get to experience each moment individually. Together. It’s a lovely stroll down memory lane that fills them with joy. They remember watching the sun dip below the trees on that late summer evening when they first met. An image of them in their youth flickers into their overlay.
“Gosh, we were so young. Our whole lives ahead of us,” Baylor says, turning to Helena.
“Yeah, I remember you were so tentative and shy that day,” she replies, smiling.
He frowns. That is not quite how he remembers it. All he remembers is how beautiful it was to be in her presence.
The remembrance continues on.
“Look, that is when we took Rudie to his first festival of memories!” He exclaims.
The overlay changes to display a picture of a face-painted toddler against the backdrop of a park crowded with people bedecked in all manner of festival attire. The music from that day starts to play softly in their ears.
“Ah, that was a fabulous day.”
After the memories fade away, they sit holding hands, enjoying the warmth of the autumnal sun on their faces and the companionable silence they share. They always leave this bench with a deep sense of appreciation for the other, floating like a cloud back to their home with big smiles on their faces – love and connection carefully nurtured across so many shared experiences, encapsulated in memory, and now strengthened through their remembrance.
Rudie is full of excitement for one of his favourite days of the year: the local festival of memories held within the park. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the festival, and the community has been eagerly preparing for it. The day has finally arrived. Rudie is looking forward to meeting old and new friends at the festival while enjoying the merriment of the day’s festivities.
As he makes his way to the park, the smells of households preparing their offerings for the feast waft through the air, making his mouth water. The sounds of laughter and music fill the streets, and he can hear the distant sound of a brass band warming up. When he arrives, he takes a moment to appreciate the vibrant colours of the tents, stalls, and banners scattered throughout the park, along with the joyful energy of the people thronging along the path beside him.
Rudie meanders along the path towards the Community Orchard and its famous cider stall. After filling his glass, he takes a refreshing draught of the crisp, tangy elixir. Fresh, fruity aromas fill his nostrils. Ah, delightful. A canopy has been strung between a number of sturdy apple trees, providing shade for the equivalent of a makeshift cinema. This cinema is one of a wide and sometimes ingenious variety of places and spaces brought to life by the festival for the purpose of collective remembering. Rudie smiles as he remembers the first time he had sat in the orchard’s remembering space. He couldn’t have been more than three at the time, but it was an experience that stuck with him.
Watching the orchard come into being. Slowly at first, the young trees unchanging against the backdrop of the park as it cycles through the seasons. Then gradually, the trees start to grow taller, their branches stretched out towards the sky, and their leaves become denser. The spring blossoms each year cycle past in an increasingly riotous display of colours. Then, the first fruits start to appear. The first harvest parties, his mum there amongst them, beaming out at him. In total, the projection takes over ten minutes to cycle through a timelapse of the orchard’s 30 year history—and that time grows with each passing day. It never fails to have an impact. It bound him to place and put him in relation to community long before he understood the meaning and importance of such things.
Before leaving, Rudie takes another gulp of his cider and refills his cup. The connection he feels to this orchard and its fruits make it taste all the more scrumptious.
Further along the path, Rudie passes an old man spinning records next to a speaker stack, which thumps out dub, reggae and good vibrations into a few gently skanking festival goers. The selecta is his godfather, Torkel, and sure enough, Rudie spots his mum in the crowd. He waves at them both as he boogies on through; the distinctive smell of mary jane is layered over the rest of the festival smells as he passes.
Around the corner, he passes the vertical farm responsible for producing most of the fresh produce in the local area. Rudie remembers fondly the hours he spent learning about the inner workings of the farm and his childhood wonderment at seeing green shoots of life sprout out of the soil.
On he walks. Up ahead, the path opens out into the park’s library. Today is one of the few days of the year where it actually resembles a traditional library, with real book shelves dotted around the clearing. People stand around gently conversing or sit on their own, immersed in a book. Smiling faces with brightly-coloured t-shirts proclaiming them to be “memory librarians” for the differently-shaped enclosures on the grass surrounding the library. Their role is to help people interface with memory space, explore it, experience its memories, or enter new memories into it. The library’s remembering spaces are popular, as usual. Books, being natural spaces to record memories that can have such interesting histories as they bind readers together across time and space, were one of the first artifacts to be augmented with memory space.
Rudie walks through the library and continues along the path, aiming for the heart of the festival. He steers around a walking tour heading towards him on the path, overhearing the familiar memory responsibilities spiel as he passes by. Then, just over a rise, the path opens up into a large grassy clearing that slopes down towards a stage. The band he heard earlier is now in full swing, with people up front swaying to the beat like flowers in the breeze. Farther back, people sprawl around picnic blankets, basking in the warmth of the sunshine.
At the back, a row of tables groan under the weight of all manner of cooked dishes, snacks and treats. Every now and again, someone walks up and drops off their contribution to the feast. Dutifully, Rudie ambles over and unloads a bag full of fresh, succulent easy p’s that he had picked from the orange trees in his garden. One of the few positives to be had from the changing climate was that these parcels of succulent, juicy, orange joy now grow in his part of the world.
Then, spotting his friends, he bounds down the slope to join them.
“Rudie, hey man. Good timing, the opening ceremony is going to start soon.”
Sure enough, over the next twenty minutes the natural amphitheatre of the park fills with people. Then, at one o’clock, the band stops playing and a hush falls over the crowd.
Nadia Guzman, this year’s mayor of the festival and the park, confidently strides onto the stage. In a powerful voice amplified by the stage’s speakers, she begins to welcome the revellers.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome each and every one of you. It is wonderful to be here with you at Finsbury Park’s Thirtieth Festival of Memories.”
The crowd is full of adulation and appreciation. Once it settles, Nadia continues.
“Today is a day of celebration. A day to reflect on and celebrate the past of this amazing park. So many communities of individuals have been brought into relation through this shared public sphere. Take time today to appreciate that. We want this day to be a joyful experience for all. Be kind. Be respectful. Be open-minded.
“Today is about experiencing memories together. Throughout the park, you will find spaces and places for all kinds of experiences and interpretations of this park’s memories. We want you to feel welcome, and we encourage you to participate in actively creating memories today.
“Before I declare the feast open, I want to take a special moment to remember Amore Bora. Many of you may have known her personally, and all of you have been touched by the compassion and care she brought to this community. It has been ten years since she passed away, but her impact on this festival will be forever felt.”
Nadia pauses, and a cheer swells through the audience as its members raise a glass to Amore.
“Amore advocated for and inspired a myriad of different ways for exploring how to break down the barriers to interfacing with memory space—making this festival and the memory spaces it celebrates more inclusive, participatory, and welcoming; the physicalization of memory space and its memories through play, art, and other forms of creative expression; the use of human guides to smooth over rough edges; and the importance of collective remembering are ideas that were all seeded by her. She was a great friend and had a sharp, witty mind. I encourage you all to carve out some time today to interact with her memories, which are diffused across the park. The memory librarians throughout the festival will be more than happy to assist you with this.
“Finally, I want to remind everyone that today is about remembering our past and, through this, connecting ourselves to place, people and community. However, remember that we live in the present and are moving into the future with every passing moment. The past should inform us, but not wholly define us. Forgetting is just as an important function as remembering. Let’s all be careful not to let the past be a straightjacket to our futures.”
A hush falls as the audience takes a moment to process Nadia’s words and their wisdom.
“Now I declare the feast open. Fill your bellies. Talk to your neighbours. Make new, happy memories today and all the rest of your days.”