The Heartbreaking Case For Google Photos

smartphones memory

I take pictures of exceedingly dumb things -- my cat sniffing a bunch of kale, my drunk friend taking money out of an ATM -- and I sometimes think it's because, nine years ago, my dad's memory was shattered by a brain tumor that ultimately took his life.

(It might also be because my cat looks really cute sniffing kale. But I think there's something to the cancer idea.)

My dad had a glioblastoma multiforme -- "the terminator" -- which annihilated his memory. Mostly it was the short-term stuff: There were dinners that felt like they stretched for hours when he would ask "How was your day?" over and over and over and over and over again. We could have the same conversation 10 times in 30 minutes. Sometimes, I would change my answers to break the tedium.

Some long-term stuff went, too. A year or so before he got sick, we went on a trip to Japan -- he forgot this. There were photos, though -- a whole album of them, actually. We'd go through them sometimes to remind him.

Having a father with a brain tumor taught me a few things. There is tremendous responsibility in being a teen with a parent who legitimately can't remember if he gave you an allowance; "Law and Order" reruns are great, no matter your mental faculties; and if you think you can always put the camera down and just "savor the memory" later, you are sorely mistaken.

The experience made me paranoid about my own memory. I realized, when I was just a teenager, that the good ol' times aren't necessarily sticking around. Sorry! I know your brain is great now -- it retrieves the information you want when you want it, it doesn't make you wake up on a workday in October thinking it's Christmas, but that all can change. (And quickly, too.)

That's exactly why I'm optimistic about what smartphones and recent developments online can do for us.

google photos

Google Photos can automatically upload every picture you take on your smartphone, allowing access from any device

To that end, it's possible that Google Photos is my favorite consumer tech product released this year. It's an elegant platform that solves a couple of substantial problems. We take a boatload of pictures on our phones, but our phones have limited storage space. So, normally, we have to delete photos before we can take more. People also upgrade their devices -- and when you get rid of your old phone, the pictures go with it.

Google Photos solves these problems by automatically uploading to the cloud every photo you take. It's true that alternative services that do similar things have existed for years -- you could put all of your photos on Dropbox, or iCloud, or Google's own Drive service -- but none have been so simple or purely functional. Google Photos does exactly what you expect it to. It's also smart enough to recognize people, places and things: You can search for "black cat" and, voila, all of the pictures of your black cat.

You can probably see what I'm getting at: Imagine if my dad, born in 1936, had grown up in the era of the smartphone. Google's services essentially offer an opportunity to digitize parts of your brain: You don't have to remember everything, because the little computer in your pocket can. Who knows what difference it ultimately would have made -- the brain tumor could just as easily have eliminated his ability to operate a phone or remember what to type to begin with -- but the faintest notion that the data we all generate as a matter of course in modern life could one day help someone with a debilitating memory problem is enough to give me hope.

If we condition ourselves to store and access our memories in the cloud now -- well, maybe that pays off somewhere down the line. That's basically why I take pictures of everything: These can last in a way my brain cannot. Also, the constant need to document date nights irritates my girlfriend, adorably.

Of course, the solution isn't perfect. It would be irresponsible to suggest that there aren't potential dark sides to handing over our data for the sake of convenience -- the latent problems are manifold. For one thing, it's definitely the case that our data will pay off down the line -- for Google. In the immediate sense, the company collects our personal information and uses it to target advertisements. If you'd like a soul-crushing glimpse into how this all might progress -- big tech companies getting bigger, harvesting our data like husks of corn and controling the minutiae of everyday life through a series of unending microtransactions -- you might read Jaron Lanier's Who Owns The Future?

And as a purely practical concern, while services like Google Photos are great at putting our personal information online permanently, they're not so great at being permanent themselves. Google announced this week that it is effectively shuttering Google+ Photos, an older platform, to throw its weight behind the new Google Photos. (How's that for confusing?) When our information is online, it seems like it may never go away, but the products we all use -- phones, apps, storage services -- can be startlingly ephemeral, which makes it hard to look toward the future with total confidence that the functionality we enjoy today might stick around.

Still, I like to remain optimistic. Three weeks ago, my grandma celebrated her 90th birthday. She's happy as a clam, but her memory is iffy. My mom handed her an iPhone with pictures of family on it. Grandma flipped through them, looked up and said of the smartphone, "These things are just miracles, aren't they?"

She's basically right. We carry with us the ability to access and enjoy so many moments of life. It makes me wonder about how things might have been a little better with a phone instead of scattered, physical photo albums when my dad was sick -- dusty books he had no part in creating, in contrast to the digital mementos many of us make almost incidentally every single day. And it makes me feel at least a bit better about what might come next.

So, yes: I will take pictures of my cat sniffing kale. Who knows when I might need them?