This article was originally published in MARCH Journal of Art & Strategy.
We begin recalling a story from something seen online only to realize midway through that the facts are hard to retreive. Where did I see that quote? What was the name of that author? Where did I find this image again? Who was it that posted that tweet? How long ago was I on that page? The communication of a point evades coherent oral transmission and we side-step ‘I’m not doing it justice’ with a reference to a source that seems to have become unlocatable, having slipped away into the endless online ephemera of the lost unknown.
Shakespeare’s proclamation, “Thou canst not teach me to forget,”1 is defied in the online classroom of our digital lives. Memory has become thin. Information has grown elusive. We know we have seen something somewhere, but cannot recover its full form. Where? When? A few more minutes are spent on the recall attempt, eventually calling off the search in defeat. It remains an amputated fragment. A partial limb missing its body.
Popular science coined the severing internesia: the growing tendency to forget exactly where in cyberspace you saw a particular piece of information. Internesia is an online forgetfulness appeased by high offline tolerance. Like diminishing attention spans, the memory loss of online sources and failings to recall are widely accepted as part of our increasingly mediated experience. Let’s Google it. Try keywords, in multiple combinations. Maybe the aberration will resurface. We pay to play, long knowing that we are the product and our attention and memory spans are the currency. This is just another price for interacting with the infosphere.
DISEASE, IMPAIRMENT OR MERE ENCOUNTER?
Internesia is not considered a disease (at least, not yet) and generally accepted as a minor non-medical impairment. Compared to early onset dementia or the memory loss brain fog of low-level stress, internesia’s effects are but merely inconvenient, or perhaps somewhat more ‘interventional’ than actively destructive. However, it feels like our short term memory has undergone a chirurgical removal. Electronics store our memories for us: auto-filling, correcting, finishing our sentences. Forget the mnemotechnics of past centuries (memorizing The Iliad and The Odyssey by heart, or even the childhood poems of Milne and Milligan), direct access to our working memory is definitely on the down.
Who was that writer again? Oh yes, Frances Yates. She wrote about the spatial techniques to remember. I recall the beautiful title well enough: The Art of Memory. Did I see that recommended on Amazon? Or was it posted by someone on Instagram? Anyway, if the browser reads my impressions correctly it will be re-presented to me again. And again. The new take on Sherlock Holmes’ use of the memory palace will enter via the Netflix suggestion algorithm. YouTube may recommend videos of the British illusionist Derren Brown, another fan of the ‘mind palace technique,’ to mentally store great quantities of information.
PLASTICITY AND PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORY
Do you remember whilst-browsing what the internal voice said just moments ago? It spoke to you via that webpage. It transmitted information. Though, as the visual recall impairment sets in the ‘sense event’, like the ability to remember, bears risk to elimination.
I do think I have a photographic memory. I can see the page in my mind – the colors, the typeface combinations, the feature photo at the top. But it doesn’t matter how well I can visualize it in front of me, what remains is but a mere trace. It’s like déjà vu. As hard as I try to grasp it, to hold onto a recall, I cannot refind.
Oh, dear neuroscience. What is the becoming mind with zero plasticity? Was it predicted that the brain may become deadened like brittle discoloured plastic?
I’m always browsing in private, so the memories stored in my history are barren. It’s the same as what’s happening in my brain. Deserted.
Are information snippets, impressions, faces, situations, paintings and images, still existent there, somewhere in that skull encased organ? Or have we literally forgotten all the travels, lovers, and grammar rules that were ever stored? Can we re-evoke them, or perhaps counter their fading, in ironically digital form?
What is therapy in this age of deep forgetting? What is there to say to the psychiatrist without access to a smartphone, its Notes app, health trackings, and assisting reminders?
I just looked at the time, then immediately forgot it. Have to look it up again.
Here’s the SMS verification code. I usually enter it digit by digit, easier than trying to remember the entire five in one go. I successfully managed four, before having to revisit the SMS.
Why care that previous generations were able to remember (and instantly dial) fifty telephone numbers from memory? Internesia lacks nostalgia for such a useless ‘art of remembering’. Why bother when the perpetual now is demanding enough.
I’ve lived in my apartment for two years and still can’t remember the postcode.
Do you remember the first time you forgot your own telephone number? No.
These small inadequacies, which surely could be retained before, have been gradually accepted – prepping the grounds for internesia’s unobstructed receipt. Rather than a shortcoming of memory, friends and colleagues lament a ‘lack of system’ in their note organization for the struggle to recall where one came across something. Bookmarks get messy. Systematic documents gradually lose their system. Quotes, stats, images and articles; the difficulties of ordering and storing online-finds glazes over the actual inability to recollect where the stumble-upon happened. Another failing of the subject, unattributed to the online workings themselves. After all, perhaps the subject is working to say goodbye to the past.
THE RIGHT TO FORGET
In the interpretation of dreams, to dream about forgetting something indicates life’s anxieties. It may represent your unconscious desire to leave that something behind. ‘Cancel Culture’ can catch up with you, self-censor as you go along. The remembering of every perceived misstep is unforgiving. Forgive and forget. Online storage is expensive, but forgetting is cheap. If you depreserve you can forgo the palaver of deciding what to consign to oblivion. And anyway, Google will always remember more about us than we can about it.
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance and regulation at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute, argued in 2009 that in the digital ages there is in fact an inability of the system to forget. He asserts that we (users) have a ‘right to forget.’ He poses that remembering, “limits one’s decision-making ability and ability to form close links with people who remember less.”2 Is forgetfulness really an experience only held by a minority? Mayer-Schönberger states:
The effect may be stronger when caused by more comprehensive and easily accessible external digital memory. Too perfect a recall, even when it is benignly intended to aid our decision-making, may prompt us to become caught up in our memories, unable to leave our past behind.3
We all prefer a version of the internet where we can force the erasure of information stored about us. We might like an expiration date attached to any information inadvertently saved. Though, that does not equate to the preference for mass forgetfulness overall.
CONTEMPORARY INABILITY TO RECOLLECT
(AFTER THE RIGHT TO FORGET)
Recollect /ˌrɛkəˈlɛkt/ Verb.
from Latin recollect- ‘gathered back’,
from re- ‘back’ + colligere ‘collect’.
Like the ‘right to forget’ birthdays once you’ve left Facebook, internesia can also be read as the Right to Forget nonsense we never asked for. Try to remember what passed by on the newsfeed one, five, ten minutes ago since you logged off. Good luck. Then put the bytes into a wider context. A good two decades into search engines taking over our daily memory, we’re becoming amnesic Zoombies.
Switch off your Google Maps and start to wander. Give that Debordian dérive a go. Ask directions from strangers. They will look at you, confused and frightened at first, then turn friendly, willing to help a lost strangely-phoneless soul.
Let’s face it: deficiencies of memory are given a pass by ‘the search.’ Searchers become dependent on engines to recover what is unable to be ‘gathered back’ autonomously. To revisit requires first a pitstop by the engine to pose the question: Where was I? We dump the fragments that remain in anamnesis, scraps dug up from an archaeological site of what stuck to the memory. We retrieve paraphrased bits and pieces, taking them to the search bar, rearranging in pursuit of a positive result. DuckDuckGo requires specifics. Flotsam might have more immediate luck at the big G. I’m feeling lucky. So many voices on the phone tell their tragic details of navigation attempts.
I take all the bodiless pieces of what I can barely remember to The Search, like carrying an armful of random parts to a repairman in the hope they can assemble something whole.
I really thought I had inherent value in the rubble. All I needed was a hand to make the pieces fit. On a good day this works. Though much of the time, it’s not enough for successful retrieval. I should really get better at bookmarking.
Ten years along the heroic fight of the Gutmenschen4 for privacy and the Right to Forget, the fact is that the United Datacentres still remember everything; it’s us who have lost the ability to remember. “Clinically speaking, the dream of forgetting a speech onstage, of forgetting to take a final exam, or of forgetting to attend a course until that fateful day, does not qualify as a nightmare because it does not wake the sleeper. Yet, like any recurrent fear, it tells a society something about itself.”5
The Right to Forget tells us about the compulsive Will to Search. Implicit in the loose fragments is the Right to Find – one of the many assumed privies of internet users, like the Right to Post, the Right to Be Found, and the Right To Exist, to name but a few. As the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child proclaims; “Children have the right to find out things and share what they think with others.” We discuss the complexities of these rights in the terms of adults, on the terms of surveillance platforms – privacy, data collection, proliferation of misinformation – which calls into question the Right To Post itself.
Ultimately, we align the Right to Find as the Right To Use the Internet. Right or Privilege? What are rights anyway? Will we remember them in the first place? Internesia and forgiven forgetfulness is the soft price paid for access and exercise. Is there a collective way to overcome, to become, to counter the imposed lapses of retention? Should we go to yet another two-day offline course to train the brain? Not again. Mindfully we find ourselves asking: Where was that new course I saw, again?
Access and exercise is our Right to Exposure, now allied with the human Right to Limits, as pertained by ‘Humane Tech’ advocates and other concerned parties (most likely including ourselves). After all, the Right to Forget is excused by the Right to Limits. Douglas Coupland described humans as “amnesia machines.”6 We are but paleo creatures restricted by our biology, unfortunately un-infinite in our capacities to collect and retain. Attention remedies such as digital minimalism, slow movements, and Eastern traditions gain popularity while internesia sits in the liminal consequence space. Not fully noted, not fully examined, not fully attended to, not fully cared for. Internesia appears as an accepted result, failing to transcend personal defect into resultant phenomenon. And as we know, ‘they’ designed that, too.