I remember quite precisely the day I’ve heard about Google for the first time.
I was around 12 years old, it was the year 2000 and I wasn’t living underwater but in Tunisia at that time (what’s better to start an article than making a pun out of 2000s teenage pop band Busted, right).
I was at the airport to pick up some family members and some friend of a friend told me about the famous website that would later become part of our daily lives. « Have you heard of Google ? You should give it a try. It’s quite neat. ».
The digital messiah had arrived.
I went online in 1998 for the first time while visiting family in the USA. It lasted around 3 minutes, I was at my auntie’s office and she asked if I wanted to « go on the internet » or something similar. So I excitedly typed, ladies and gentlemen and all the other lovely folks of the gender spectrum, « cartoonnettwork.com ».
I was 10 years old and addicted to Cow and Chicken and Dexter’s Laboratory, even though my english teacher thought I was too old for watching cartoons. I remember the homepage loading bit by bit, revealing pictures of one of my preferred characters, Chicken, and other favorites.
I also remember the first website I have visited on my own. It was the very same year I had heard of Google for the first time, I had a roaring 56K connection at home and wanted to know what the fuss was around that mysterious TV ad and even more mysterious name, « Amazon ».
So I typed: « amazon.com ».
« A shop ? » I thought. « Pretty weird name for a shop ».
You can easily imagine that as a 12 year old shy emo teen living in North Africa, I didn’t stick around for too long. I was way more interested in downloading all the indie music I could hear on MTV2 and browsing Geocities blogs — but that’s another story, and a quite boring one.
Funny enough to think that almost two decades later, these very two internet giants are still quite here to stay at a point where they have become part of our vocabulary. Even funnier that I still remember today how I found out about them.
These silly little life moments had made it to my long term memory.
“Memory, all alone in the moonlight…”
Psychology taught us a lot to better understand how memory works. To make it rather short, there are 3 stages of memory: sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory.
Having an accurate memory used to be more than a strong skill in Ancient Greece, it was a craft that scholars were encouraged to develop and were praised for. The Loci method was used in ancient Greek and Roman societies to help recall information in an efficient way by visualizing them as stored in different parts of a location, like a building or a house. Retrieving information would then be achieved by mentally walking around the location and visualizing where they’re stored.
I have never used this method myself but remember having to recall poetry or history dates in school rather dreadfully.
How could I so easily forget about macroeconomic theories learned at university (mercantilism anyone?) but still know every word of most Eminem songs?
Songs I do not need to Google the lyrics to sing along to. Same goes for most musicals.
But what happened to all the other important things I need to Google to recall?
I’m certainly not alone doing so.
I have recently attended a conference about how technologies were changing the way our memory works*. A psychologist and a visual artist talked about memory bias cases linked to our digital age, or how memories can be recalled differently than what actually happened specifically due to our use of messaging apps, social media and indeed, search engines.
As ultra connected individuals we can read entire past conversations with people we don’t speak to anymore and try to find a meaning behind those floating words to analyze what « really » happened or what they « really » meant.
I suspect the act of deleting past conversations with former friends or lovers being a way to try deleting these unwanted memories from our minds, whether good or bad. Technology has given us the power to CRUD our world around — create, read, update, delete information, posts, pictures, friends — mirroring events and major updates in our lives. Our digital lives are both public windows and private bubbles of our own existence, and by shaping them we aim to mirror the changes in our physical lives.
Another memory bias is linked to our quasi-instinct to Google things we can’t remember. The « Google-effect is « a tendency to forget information or lose interest in remembering what can be found readily online by using internet search engines ».
We are literally using Google as an external component of our memory, a place where one can finally store all the boring and less boring things, history dates, capital cities, you name it — all accessible a few taps away from our smartphones.
The search engine’s complex algorithms ensure we get the most relevant, freshest results matching our queries everyday, whether we’re looking for facts or searching for advice, googling symptoms or looking for relationship advice. The internet becomes a mirror of our society, with the guarantee that everyone of us gets personalized results and recommendations.
Or does it?
- Since each of us is externalizing their memory at different levels using search engines, can we consider that the sum of us forms a collective memory?
- Since Google is indexing billions of search results everyday, using complex rules and algorithms to decide which should be ranked first or left at the bottom according to our personal behaviors and preferences, what actually happens to the sum of us?
- Since we are constantly evolving and shifting as individuals, thinking and behaving a little differently everyday and memorizing things differently in a certain way, what happens to the sum of us?
- Since how I thought and expressed myself when I used Google for the first time in 2000, at the tender age of 12, is now millions years away from the 30 year old person I am today, well, what happens to the sum of us?
History has taught us that what we learn later on is the history of those who won.
Internet has given us the feeling that information would now be accessible to each and everyone, guaranteeing freedom of speech and jeopardizing dictatorships through this very free circulation of information.
But what happens when each of our single memories is diluted in the Internet ocean — or more the cloud — or our collective memory?
As a digital native, I strongly believe in values of an internet helping out people to learn about their history free of judgment or alteration everyday. But as time goes by I also wonder if the internet I have dreamed of, the internet many among my generation have dreamed of, is not threatened in a way by its very nature of being ever-changing and ever-shifting.
If our collective memory is shaped by the sum of our ever-changing individual memories and since we are using the internet and search engines as our external memory, how can we guarantee our collective archive to be unalterable?
What if a dark, totalitarian government similar to the one in « V for Vendetta » rules us all tomorrow, killing the elderly and the scholar, and altering every possible event in Wikipedia, deleting the definition of democracy and erasing centuries of our past?
What will happen to the sum of us?
*Diana Ø. Tørsløv Møller (MA in Psychology, Lecturer, Universität der Kunste, Berlin) and Helene Nymann (artist, Ph.D fellow, Interacting Minds Centre, Aarhus University)
Experiencing Metamemories: Aplysia Californica in Conversation