Let’s not forget the past

Technology should be better at reminding us about the past, and helping us learn from it

source: https://www.telluridescience.org/about/past-present-future

As humans, it’s well understood that we’re pre-disposed to focus on the present more than the past. You probably remember what you had for dinner last night, but odds are you don’t recall what you had for dinner five days ago, let alone five weeks ago. We’re wired to discount the past at a physiological level, as shown by cognitive biases like the recency effect.

One area that’s even more prone to favoring the present is the internet, where nostalgia is trumped by forward progress, and the focus is on the “now”. Recency is a core component of Google’s page rank algorithm, and Facebook’s timeline and Twitter’s newsfeed are ranked in reverse chronological order.

One complaint I’ve long had about the hegemony of present is that there’s so much good stuff from the past that gets buried! Watershed magazine articles, songs that defined a generation, paintings that created new genres— these are all but forgotten in our feeds and on our media platforms.

Making matters more difficult for the past is the fact that the present is sometimes more abundant, even in the aggregate. Think about this in the case of digital photos. Most of us take lots more photos today than we did 5 years ago, prior to the ubiquity of smartphones, and even more 15 years ago, prior to the widespread popularity of digital cameras. But when we compare the number of photos taken today to decades ago, the difference in volume is staggering. In 2012, it was estimated that more photos are taken every two minutes than in all of the 19th century (It’s probably even more today).

“It has been estimated that more photos are now taken every two minutes than in all of the nineteenth century.”

Not only is the present sometimes more abundant, but the past sometimes doesn’t even show up in our search results or our media platforms because it hasn’t been digitized. A lot of music and movies from the past live on physical media only — in fact, much of the music in my vinyl record collection can’t be found online. The asymmetry in volume is especially heartbreaking when a lot of stuff from the past — e.g. Shakespeare, the Beatles, Robert Altman movies, et al — is as good if not better than most of the present!

Luckily, when stuff is digitized, technology can be really good at recalling the past. At least that’s what I’ve noticed in a few products I’ve seen recently, such as Google Photos, Facebook’s “On this day”, Timehop, and Amazon Kindle’s Daily Review. These products illustrate that when our stuff is digitized and accessible, retrieving the past — for posterity or for educational purposes — is easily programmable.

With Google Photos, now that I’ve uploaded more of my personal photo library, including photos from years ago, I receive occasional notifications that a photo from the past has been edited or made into a video. So far it seems that Photos applies equal weight to photos regardless of when they were taken.

Facebook’s “On this day” sends a notification each day that reminds me of something I did on Facebook on this day X years ago. I’ve been really amused to see old friend invites and messages from a few years ago that I had completely forgotten about. The feature is very similar to (and has been called a knockoff of) Timehop, a product that “shows old photos and posts from Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram, Flickr and your camera roll photos.”

These three products, Google Photos, Facebook, and Timehop, are mostly focused on retrieving and re-surfacing personal memories for reminiscence (Timehop’s tagline on its site is “Old is awesome”). But recalling the past can also be educational, as shown by Amazon Kindle’s Daily Review. The feature (at https://kindle.amazon.com/) is “a tool to help you review and remember the most significant ideas from your books.” Each day is displays a highlight from a book I’ve read, based on when I read the book. As the explainer text says, “the periodic review of ideas makes it easier to remember them.”

As the Kindle Daily Review alludes to, the psychological concept behind the periodic re-surfacing of ideas is the spacing effect, the “phenomenon whereby animals (including humans) more easily remember or learn items when they are studied a few times spaced over a long time span.” In essence, we’re more likely to remember something if we’re reminded of it periodically, over the course of time.

Now that I’ve experienced technology that can automatically retrieve the past for sentimental or educational purposes, I can think of other ways to integrate the past into the present. I would love, for instance, to know about songs I was playing on repeat a few years ago. Or, it’d be great to be reminded of movies that had a huge impact on me, as judged by my mentions of the movie in conversations after seeing it. These are just two of many ideas for how technology can help us remember the past, to learn and to reminisce. I’m hoping we’ll see more of these in products to come.

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