top of page
The  iluli by Mike Lamb logo. Click to return to the homepage
The iluli by Mike Lamb logo. Click to return to the homepage

Are We Losing the Power to Forget?

Thanks to social media, it has never been easier to connect with people from the past. Curious about what that old classmate is up to now? Their profile is only a couple of clicks away.

What’s more, most of us now use our social media feeds as a kind of virtual photo album. If you’re of a certain age, then a scroll through the older photos will no doubt take you on a trip down memory lane which rekindles memories of long-forgotten nights out, old friends we lost touch with and a fresher-faced younger version of yourself.

A cartoon depiction of a 'Guess Who?' rack of faces. Each face is a grayscale photo of a character from 'The Office' (US) TV show.

As Damian Thompson writes in The Spectator:

“For the first time in 300,000 years, human beings have the ability to plunge into a re-creation of the past so detailed that it feels like time travel.”

This is great when we want to reminisce. But as demonstrated conclusively in the greatest film ever made, sometimes the past is best left in the past. What about the things you’d rather forget? Bad news… the internet doesn’t.

Lauren Goode, a seasoned tech writer for Wired, penned an article about this effect when it was painfully realised after she called off her wedding. She writes:

“I still have a photograph of the breakfast I made the morning I ended an eight-year relationship and canceled a wedding. It was an unremarkable breakfast — a fried egg — but it is now digitally fossilized in a floral dish we moved with us when we left New York and headed west.

“Did I want to see the photo again? Not really. Nor do I want to see the wedding ads on Instagram, or a near-daily collage of wedding paraphernalia on Pinterest, or the ‘Happy Anniversary!’ emails from WeddingWire, which for a long time arrived every month on the day we were to be married.”

Today, there is a wealth of information collected about us — from the things that define us to the trivial — which could confront us at any moment in sometimes unexpected ways. Like a mindlessly taken photograph which gains meaning with the passage of time. Goode continues:

“Of the thousands of memories I have stored on my devices — and in the cloud now — most are cloudless reminders of happier times. But some are painful, and when algorithms surface these images, my sense of time and place becomes warped.

“Our smartphones pulse with memories now. In normal times, we may strain to remember things for practical reasons — where we parked the car — or we may stumble into surprise associations between the present and the past, like when a whiff of something reminds me of Sunday family dinners. Now that our memories are digital, though, they are incessant, haphazard, intrusive.”

We’re the first generation of people to have a digital memory that, in many ways, we use to supplement our own memory of events from our past. We document our lives in ways that were unthinkable even 20 years ago, before the age of smartphones with cameras. Social media companies and tech platforms have promoted and capitalised on this trend by creating features that will flash those memories before us unprompted.

When tech companies decide to remind us of these times gone by, what’s their motivation? It may come as no surprise, that it’s not necessarily for the good of our mental or emotional health.

Cartoon depictions of several digital devices: a smartphone, a tablet, a smartwatch and a screen showing sports.

Goode writes:

“To hear technologists describe it, digital memories are all about surfacing those archival smiles. But they’re also designed to increase engagement, the holy grail for ad-based business models... This monetization of emotional memory isn’t just off-putting in theory; it can also inhibit personal growth, as I was slowly learning.”

She cites the writing of Kate Eichhorn, who researches culture and media at the New School in New York City and wrote the book The End of Forgetting. Eichhorn wrote that: “Forgetting used to be the default, and that also meant you could edit your memories.” This editing of memories is not a Photoshop tool, but the psychological process of our brain constantly ‘editing’ memories to incorporate new information and, sometimes, cope with stress and trauma.

There’s a growing body of evidence that social media is changing not only the way we remember events — Psychology Today reports that posting about something on social media helps us to remember it — but also the way we feel about those memories. 

“Social media has the potential to change how people feel about their memories... Social media metrics such as Facebook ‘likes’ can negatively impact how people feel about certain memories, especially if these memories are shared without getting many likes.”

In other words, there are some quite profound implications arising from the way we use digital technology to process our memories now, from changing the ways our brains work to shaping the stories we form about our lived experiences.

It is an area ripe for further study. In an interview for PC Mag, cognitive scientist Dr. Jason R. Finley, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Fontbonne University, explains some of the ideas outlined in his book Memory and Technology: How We Use Information in the Brain and the World. He said:

“With a handful of early exceptions, hardly any psychologists have done any research on the interplay between technology (external memory, stored outside your brain) and human memory (internal memory, stored inside your brain).

“What we can say is that technology is making memory different. We are offloading semantic and prospective information onto external memory, and we are using external memory to augment episodic internal memory.”

He adds:

“Without looking at your phone, how many numbers do you know by heart? What about your calendar commitments a week from now? Off-loading these bits of information to our devices is convenient, but has it changed our brains, or the way we understand and store memories?”

It’s a good point — I used to know the numbers of all my nearest and dearest, now I’m not so sure. As you realise when you panic that you’ve accidentally left the house without your mobile phone, we’ve become dependent on these devices for a lot of our thinking.

Marcel Proust once wrote that “The greater part of our memory exists outside us.” I wonder what he would have made of the influence that algorithms and data now have on how we remember?

In today’s world, it would be extremely difficult to escape technology’s influence on how we process and store our memories. But one easy win could lie in us all choosing to be that little bit more discerning about the moments we capture and digitally store. After all, we never know when they might come back to surprise us.


bottom of page