Memory Machine

Like Facebook before them, iPhones are now serving up prefab slideshows—whether you want them or not.

A screenshot from a Slatester’s iPhone Memory, featuring eyebrow stitches and the warm fuzzies of Election Day 2016.

Lisa Larson-Walker

It’s hard to think of a more uncanny notification from your smartphone than “You have a new memory.” Are phones reading minds now? But that’s a regular occurrence on iPhones these days thanks to Memories, which Apple’s phones now create by mining your photos and videos, setting them to inoffensive music, and offering an edited, movie-montage version of your smartphone-snapped life. And to add a predictably Black Mirror–esque twist, some of the memories may not be the kind of things you want to remember at all.

For example, one Slatester was recently so moved by a Memory her phone created that she posted it to Instagram, so her followers could also revel in the montage, playing alongside uplifting music, of Election Day 2016, a day she remembers both because she had split her head open while traveling not long before and still had the stitches to prove it; and for the devastating, history-altering political event that took place. Just the kind of thing Don Draper would pop into his Kodak Carousel!

If you’ve seen the memory notification for the first time lately, it’s probably because Memories got a boost last month with the release of iOS 11. The latest iPhone software update included some sprucing up of Memories, to make them more “intelligent” and “personalized,” as Business Insider wrote at the time. Whether they’ve gotten smarter is anybody’s guess, but one thing is clear: As Memories have become more prominent, so has their ability to remind iPhone users of things they’d rather forget.

It’s not just my colleague’s Election Day rehash. Take this account from Digital Photography Review a few weeks back:

Apple’s algorithm makes some pretty weird choices. My latest Memory, titled “Best of the last 2 months,” opens on an image of a discarded Craisins box on a bed of grass. I thought it was an interesting photo for Instagram, but not a moment I wanted to reminisce about months later. It’s hard for a computer to know the difference.

The misses are all much funnier because of the slightly dramatic treatment: panning, gentle transitions and music give the impression of something that’s been carefully curated to invoke nostalgia. It’s all very serious, and works very well for a post-hike selfie with a majestic backdrop. It’s downright laughable when it’s a photo of some acne-treating serum I took a picture of to send to my sister.

If this all sounds a little familiar, these inept slideshows of Craisins and acne serum and injuries, it’s because we’ve been through this before with Facebook, the service that practically invented shoving old content in your face to occasionally disastrous results. Encountering exes, family members who passed away, and other sad sights in end-of-year slideshows or “On This Day” notifications has been a consistent source of annoyance and ire among Facebook users. Yet Apple didn’t learn from Facebook’s mistake. Now that you’ve maybe finally trained Facebook to stop reminding you of those exes … say hello to them again here on your phone!

From a technical standpoint, Apple’s ability to group like photos together is impressive. Who could have imagined a phone could ever do such a thing as identify all your pets and group them together under the heading “Fluffy friends”? But it’s also something your phone doesn’t need to revise history to do, and the music and slideshow-panning effects are heavy-handed attempts on Apple’s part to repackage your life back to you: See how much better things look with a smartphone in your hand? All the sophisticated machine learning in the world can’t minimize the creepiness of big companies like Facebook and Apple trying to horn in on your personal moments. The more these services try to approximate a warm, human touch, the wider the gap between an actual memory and its simulacrum, a capital-M Memory, starts to seem. And the more our actual memories feel cheapened.

There’s really only one advantage Memories have over their lowercase-m counterparts: If you don’t like the Memories your phone creates, you can always delete them. If real memories were that easy to get rid of, maybe the faux-nostalgia of fake memories wouldn’t feel quite so creepy.