c/o Sam Hilton

c/o Sam Hilton

I would never describe myself as a perfectly well-balanced individual. Recently, I asked some friends of mine whether I was normal, to which I got a resounding no. I asked if I was chill, got the same answer. Asked if I was neurotic, and the group all enthusiastically said yes. This is especially true when it comes to this deeply hungry curiosity I harbor within myself. I was the annoying kid always asking “why?” after everything.

My earliest location history date on timeline.google.com is April 27, 2016, and I have consistent location records without any gaps from April 1, 2017 onward. My Google Photos backups go back to March 2016, but really pick up in earnest in October of that year. The earliest text conversations that I didn’t delete for storage space unfortunately only go back to Jan. 7, 2021, but I have Discord chats, email threads, Snapchat conversations, Instagram DMs, Skype messages, finsta posts, and all other manner of digital information about myself at my fingertips, most of which can be easily accessed, dating back to this late-middle-early-high-school era (2016–2018). I call all of this my personal surveillance state.

This isn’t going to be an article about the dangers of online privacy violations or how companies farm our data. To be honest, I don’t really care about that for myself. I’ve always accepted it as inevitable. No, this is more about how this easy access to information—not just the magic of search engines and Wikipedia, but also the preservation of my own personal information—has ruined my ability to accept that I don’t remember something about my history.

I’m nearly incapable of shrugging and saying, “Oh, I must’ve just forgotten,” if I learn about something that I did but don’t remember. I get anxious, I get stressed, I go on frenzied searches looking for the answer.

Toward the beginning of last semester, I walked into my housemate’s room while they were decorating to see how much progress they were making. It was cute. There were posters on the wall, vines hanging above the bed, and a pile of photos on the desk that needed to be displayed still. I picked up one of these photos because I recognized myself.

In the photo, I’m making a face to the camera next to my smiling housemate. I’m wearing a blue bandana and a Gravity Falls baseball tee. It seems like something totally ordinary, right? Wrong.

Because, you see, I don’t remember this photo being taken. It’s in a setting I don’t recognize, I don’t remember the occasion for wearing that outfit, and I can’t place the date of it in my head. I was completely puzzled.

We joked that it’s part of the “Simon Timeline”—an alternate universe where my name is Simon, spawned by my boss accidentally calling me Simon a few times followed by my aunt doing the same thing—and that’s why I didn’t remember it. I tried to shrug it off. I couldn’t.

I became obsessed with this picture. I couldn’t just accept that it was something I didn’t remember and move on. I had to know when and where it was from, what the occasion was, everything.

The deductions began. I had my old clear plastic glasses, not my current wire-rimmed ones, so it must’ve been sometime before Feb. 22, 2023 (evidenced by my Warby Parker email receipt), or during the one-week period in Fall 2023 when I lost my current pair. It couldn’t have been the latter because my hair was fully bleached in the photo in question, but in my Google Photos, it’s apparent that my hair was nearly entirely grown out/brown between Sept. 15 and 22, 2023, which is when I lost my glasses. We can go even further and say it had to be before the end of the fall 2022 semester, because my hair was blonde but not platinum blonde, which is what I dyed it in January 2023. It also had to be after January 2022, because that’s when I started bleaching my hair.

So we had a date range: January 2022 to December 2022. I then moved on to anything else I could find in the image, searching it in my Google Photos. I searched “bandana.” Nothing. I searched for various descriptions of my shirt. Nothing. I began meticulously combing through every picture that Google Photos recognized as having my face in it, but still nothing. I hadn’t taken a photo of myself that night, clearly.

This is when I became anxious. How could I not have taken a photo? How could I have had such little foresight? I make it a point to record what I do every day of my life, how could I have missed out on this day?

I sat for hours at my kitchen counter, late into the night, going through everything I could imagine. Finally, after searching through every text I’d sent that mentioned the word “bandana,” I found one from another friend asking to borrow my bandana. I had replied saying that I was already wearing it, sorry. I corroborated this with other plans I had that night (based on my Google Maps location timeline), interrupted my housemate while they were doing their homework, and asked them to look for photos from that date.

Sure enough, there it was. Friday, Sept. 9, 2022. I had gone to the Film Series—which, that night, was “Everything Everywhere All At Once” (2022)—after which I went to a party hosted by another orientation leader, then a birthday party for my friend Executive Editor Rachel Wachman ’24, and finally ended up at the food trucks with my friend and housemate Julia Gardner ’25.

I breathed a sigh of relief. But not really. I didn’t actually feel relieved. The all-consuming curiosity and anxiety hangover still lingered in the pit of my stomach. It felt odd. My personal surveillance state had done its job. It had figured out the who, what, where, when, and why of this random, inconsequential photo. But it wasn’t comforting, it was terrifying.

I wasn’t always this obsessively curious. Even through my first year or two of high school, I was a bit more able to accept instances where I didn’t have the answer. Not to a normal degree, certainly, but more so than now. Since then, however, I’ve had a hard time letting my surveillance state go.

I check my Google Timeline constantly, correcting errors in places it says I’ve been, so I don’t forget to later. I made a Last.fm account, so I could look at exactly what I was streaming, and backloaded all my raw Spotify data into it. I check my Receiptify every few weeks to see how I’m listening, never delete a playlist, never throw away most anything I consider “archival,” add everything too my all-powerful Google Calendar (sorry Anne), never let anything go that might be an indicator about what I’m thinking or how I’m feeling or what I’m doing on any given day. It’s exhausting.

I wish I could take a step back sometimes and be okay not remembering where I was or what I was doing. I wish I didn’t feel this obsessive need to be perceived by the ever-watching eye of my future self. There’s a reason, though, that my favorite book used to be “1984” by George Orwell (I have a lovely INGSOC hoodie, although it’s been removed from my possession by an unknown hooligan). Knowing is a gift, but also a curse.

This all, obviously, can also be applied outside my personal life. We all have been in a situation where someone asks a mundane question about the world that, 20 years ago, would’ve resulted in a shrug and an “I dunno,” but in our day and age ends with someone reading off a Google result or asking Siri. Some argue that it’s the end of memory. I disagree. Socrates thought books would be the end of memory, and here we are. 

My point is more that the instantaneous access to information that the digital age offers, even through means less extensive than my personal surveillance state, is scary. We were never meant to know this much about each other; we were especially never meant to know this much about ourselves.

I’ve been working on becoming a more go-with-the-flow guy, and while I have had very limited success, the progress I have been able to make has been really healing. I consciously try to not check my Receiptify or location history as often, to live more in the moment, and to stop worrying about what a future version of myself might remember about right now if I don’t put it all in the cloud. But it’s hard. 

So if you’re anything like me, first of all that’s crazy. Why are you like that? Second of all, try to detach a bit from the past and the future. Live in the now. Because what I realized after I went back and found evidence of that photo from Sept. 9, 2022, was that I didn’t remember it quickly because it wasn’t the most notable night of my life. It was just another Friday. I didn’t need to remember every moment of it forever.

But it was fun! I had a good time at the film series, at the parties I went to, and at the food truck. If I had been more worried about marking down exactly what I was doing, I wouldn’t have had as much fun. So what’s the point in worrying about that? Leave it for the alien archaeologists to work out. Each moment is only the here and now for a second before it’s gone, so don’t waste those seconds filing them into an archive. If I can do it, so can you.

Sam Hilton can be reached at shilton@wesleyan.edu.