Technology is robbing us of the power to forget

Technology is robbing us of the power to forget

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

Two years ago, Lauren Goode, a senior writer at Wired magazine, cancelled her wedding and it was awkward. These things always are, but you get over it because the brain slowly learns how to skip over painful memories. Or it did, before social media.

Goode has made a career out of wittily stripping away the pretensions of consumer tech, and when her wedding plans blew up consumer tech had its revenge. She ended her eight-year relationship in 2019 — but the internet didn’t get the message and kept confronting her with ‘a cyborg version of me, a digital ghost, that is still getting married’.

As she wrote in Wired, at the beginning of this year her social media feed was still cluttered with wedding ads, ‘a near-daily collage of wedding paraphernalia’ from the image-sharing platform Pinterest, plus reminders of the fiasco vomited up by the wretched ‘Memories’ feature on photo apps.

She was even mocked by a picture of the fried egg she had on the morning she called off her wedding. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for people who insist on photographing their breakfast, but you can’t blame Goode for using her professional connections to complain to Pinterest’s head of core product, Omar Seyal, about being hunted down by his company’s wedding-obsessed algorithms. He told her ‘We call this the miscarriage problem’, and didn’t even notice her flinch, because Silicon Valley is cold-blooded like that.

In the end Goode sat down and manually untagged her ex’s face from photos, turned off notifications, removed cookies and repeatedly cleared her browser’s cache. But she didn’t complete ‘the big delete’ because it was too exhausting, even for one of the smartest tech journalists in America. Also, she was freaked out by ‘the total obliteration of my memories’.

When I first read that, I thought: are millennials’ memories really so pixelated that they can simply delete them? But actually Goode is guilty of only slight exaggeration. The natural waning of memories obliterates far more than we realise. Images have always filled in the gaps, but now digital technology can preserve memories in such high resolution that we’re losing the power to forget. And that has the potential to mess with our emotions in ways that we can only anticipate.

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. Our mobile phones are turning into handheld Tardises that, if we’re not careful, will deposit us in front of creatures far scarier than Cybermen or Sea Devils. I’m talking about our younger selves, surrounded by those we loved — everyone bursting with life, even though most of them are no longer with us. So, not so much Doctor Who as The Return of the Living Dead.

This thought struck me when I was watching, of all things, a documentary about the actress Margaret Rutherford made a decade ago. We heard from her cousin Tony Benn, her friend June Whitfield and the painter Michael Noakes — all of them now dead. That’s hardly surprising when you work out how old they’d be if they were still alive, but it was strangely disorientating to see them looking pink-cheeked and hearty in HD.

That couldn’t have happened until the first decade of this century, and now most of us have phones whose 4K pixels and 60 frames per second take us a step closer to virtual reality. Advertisements no longer gush about ‘capturing precious moments’ because we take that for granted, and in any case a moment doesn’t have to be precious to be recorded, just vaguely happy.

This is the emotional time-bomb waiting to go off. Bereavement counsellors’ advice to concentrate on happy memories is positively dangerous in an era of social media. That’s because happy memories and memories of happy times aren’t the same thing. They never have been. Poring over the family photo album was often a tense affair. You knew grandma was just waiting for a pause in the chuckling to say: ‘That was just before his heart attack.’

But at least you could put the album back in its drawer. Now you can keep scratching the wound, like the main character in Ricky Gervais’s black comedy After Life, who tortures himself with videos of larking about with his wife before she was taken by breast cancer.

Generation Z grew up with smartphones, and so it never crosses their minds that memories need to fade. And not just memories of dead people; what middle-aged people don’t tell their children is that not being young any more absolutely sucks and the less you think about it the better. I’m lucky that during the two happiest years of my life — my last at university and my first in Fleet Street — my friends couldn’t be bothered to take photos and trudge off to Boots to get them developed. Much better to let my imagination take over, editing and rearranging things into a narrative that suits me, even if it’s fiction.

I’ll say it again: memories need to fade, and young people need to work out some way of allowing that to happen. There are times — happy times especially — when the best insurance against devastating loss is keeping your mobile in your pocket.

Trust me on this. Ten years ago my phone was just about capable of making evocative videos. I thought it might be nice to film my mother in the last days of her happiness, contentedly sipping tea as the shadows lengthened on the lawn. But for some reason I kept putting it off, and now I’m so relieved that there’s no video to watch. And if that makes no sense to you, you haven’t lost a parent.

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