Two books on memory

This review was published in The Weekend Australian in October 2019.

The featured picture is of Kate Eichhorn (by Max Middle, Flickr)

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Kate Eichhorn

The End of Forgetting: Growing up with Social Media

Harvard University Press; $49.99; 173pp

Lynne Kelly

Memory Craft: Improve Your Memory Using the Most Powerful Methods from around the World

Allen and Unwin; $32.99; 306pp

If this year’s federal election proved one thing, other than the fact that polling firms are hilariously overpaid, it’s that social media is now an invaluable resource for journalists seeking a juicy story or political operatives looking to embarrass their opponents. Time and again in the course of the campaign candidates were confronted with old Facebook posts expressing homophobia, anti-Muslim prejudice, conspiracy theories and misogyny. Some pleaded youthful stupidity; others maintained that their accounts had been hacked and the offending comments made under their names. Neither explanation passed the smell-test. Even where disendorsement didn’t follow, most candidates felt compelled to step aside, not wanting the controversy to become ‘a distraction’.

Given the brutal nature of politics, and the nature of the comments made, I doubt there’ll be much sympathy for those caught with their moral pants down: even potential politicians need to take responsibility for ugly things they’ve said in the past. But as Kate Eichhorn shows in The End of Forgetting, the emergence of a ‘data subject’ whose past is accessible to everyone has consequences for, well, everyone. Every time we post on social media, we leave traces that are almost impossible to erase, and this is having a profound effect, not only on our future prospects, but also on our subjectivities. For Eichhorn it represents a momentous shift in the way human beings are socialised.

Set out in clear and unassuming prose, Eichhorn’s thesis is that social media platforms turn their users into hostages to fortune and saboteurs of their own development. Contra the usual moral panics that accompany new forms of media, she argues that the danger of the internet is not that it destroys childhood ‘innocence’ by throwing open the developing brain to the seedy and chaotic world of adults, but that it makes our childhoods ‘perpetually present’. As she puts it: ‘The real crisis of the digital age is not the disappearance of childhood, but the spectre of a childhood that can never be forgotten.’

The relationship between human development and technology is a central concern in media studies, with some arguing that the spread of print culture served over time to create a division between literate adulthood and pre-literate childhood. But while media theorists such as Neil Postman have stressed the ways in which new technologies have eroded the adult-child distinction, Eichhorn suggests that such technologies increase and deepen childhood autonomy. In this sense the forerunners of social media are the Polaroid camera and the video camcorder: devices that enlarge the scope for people to create and record their own life-worlds – to represent themselves to themselves in relatively independent fashion.

In one sense this is liberating; but for Eichhorn it is also potentially damaging. Drawing on Freud, she argues that forgetting plays an important role in identity-creation, and indeed in the formation of memories themselves. Freud wrote that childhood reminiscences have more in common with ‘the legends and myths of nations’ than with the memories of one’s later years, the brain having discarded or ‘edited’ much that would be harmful to one’s sense of self. Since this is one of the ways we come to assert control over a time in our lives when we had little agency, the undermining of this capacity is no small matter. It some circumstances if could be catastrophic. What happens, for example, to a young refugee whose experiences of dislocation and danger remain ever present in the form of photographs, videos and other media?

What privacy activists increasingly refer to as the ‘right to be forgotten’ is pertinent here. Since adolescence is conventionally regarded as a partial moratorium on consequences – a period when mistakes are made and, ideally, learned from – social media could have a calamitous effect on the prospects and emotional health of its users. The story of the so-called Star Wars Kid, whose light-sabre antics became a YouTube phenomenon, is, for Eichhorn, paradigmatic – a harrowing precursor to the running sewer of cyberbullying, trolling and ‘revenge porn’ now stinking up the social media space. Anyone using social media regularly could experience a similar fate. We’re all Star Wars Kid now.

Eichhorn writes of the ‘end of forgetting’; but there is one sense in which modern information technology is conducive to forgetfulness. Put crudely, the internet appears to have removed the necessity of remembering stuff, the World Wide Web having been charged with the task of remembering stuff on our behalf. Time was when many commentators welcomed this apparent outsourcing of function, believing that it would free up valuable brain space that could be put to more illustrious uses. The evidence, however, is all to the contrary: an overreliance on digital technologies is not just bad for the memory but for cognitive function more generally.

Anyone wanting to improve that function is advised to read Lynne Kelly’s Memory Craft, a fascinating and amiable romp through the history of memorisation methods, from Aboriginal songlines to ‘visual alphabets’ to bestiaries and ‘memory palaces’. Replete with beautiful illustrations and tips on how to utilise the various methods outlined in its pages, the book is clearly a labour of love – as much the record of an enthusiasm as a work of scholarly exposition. (Certainly Kelly knows her stuff. In 2018 she took part in the International Association of Memory’s Australian Memory Championships and was crowned Australia’s senior champion.)

If there is a single principle connecting the methods illuminated in Memory Craft it’s that the retention of large amounts of knowledge depends on what Kelly calls ‘modality shifts’ – i.e. the moving of information from one cognitive jurisdiction to another. Thus a series of events becomes a song, a history a movement through imagined space, a taxonomy a set of stories, and so on. Regular repetition, vivid imagery and emotion are key facets of such techniques, and Kelly takes her own adventures in ‘mnemonic gymnastics’ as illustrative. I particularly liked her explanation of how to build a memory palace – an imagined space such as a house or garden into which information has been ‘encoded’ in the form of figures, situations etc. She even inspired me to build my own: a shopping mall populated by all the known species of Homo.

Forgetful and yet unable to be forgotten – the future of the only Homo left seems more than ever fraught with uncertainty. What on earth are we doing to ourselves? And what might we be capable of if we decided to stop doing it? In their different ways, these two excellent books afford new approaches to these urgent questions.