Our Memories Are Not What They Used to Be

Image by Esther Vargas (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When was the last time you had to memorize a telephone number? For me, that would be more than six years ago, when we moved to another country and my wife got a new phone. Our relation to our memories in the age of unlimited digital storage is far more complicated, though. At the New Statesman, Sophie McBain explores the ways, both subtle and startling, in which the rise of digital media and smartphones has altered our ability — and willingness — to remember:

For thousands of years, human beings have relied on stone tablets, scrolls, books or Post-it notes to remember things that their minds cannot retain, but there is something profoundly different about the way we remember and forget in the internet age. It is not only our memory of facts that is changing. Our episodic memory, the mind’s ability to relive past experiences — the surprising sting of an old humiliation revisited, the thrill and discomfort of a first kiss, those seemingly endless childhood summers — is affected, too. The average Briton now spends almost nine hours a day staring at their phone, computer or television, and when more of our lives are lived on screen, more of our memories will be formed there. We are recording more about ourselves and our experiences than ever before, and though in the past this required deliberate effort, such as sitting down to write a diary, or filing away a letter, or posing for a portrait, today this process can be effortless, even unintentional. Never before have people had access to such comprehensive and accurate personal histories — and so little power to rewrite them.

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