Against hyperthymesia

Black Mirror’s The Entire History of You — revolving around an alternate reality where everyone has access to a memory chip style implant which records everything they do, see or hear — is a perfect example of the curse of hyperthymesia.

I just finished reading a book called Filling the Void: Emotion, Capitalism & Social Media written by Londoner Marcus Gilroy-Ware, which is yet another critique (I am saying this because this seems to be the pattern of my reading materials for the past two years, given my research concentration) of social media and the society that takes shape around them, or shaped by them. I feel it is an excellent exploration of how social media is deliberately designed to “fill the void”, which is to offer some sort of emotional fulfillment within the affordances they provide — these are offered in terms of endless timeline scrolling, prompts to add birthday dates and other important dates, nudges to post if we ever be away from the social media network for quite sometime — which in return, were used to generate revenue for these corporations. Furthermore, even if these corporations started to take part in any social justice initiatives (as in the case of trying to amplify #BlackLivesMatter even after years of silence) it is shallow to place such faith in them as facilitators and guardians of social justice, knowing that their goal is commercial-oriented rather than the radical acts of saving the world, which could necessarily lead to some instability and not a favourite marketplace conditions that shall profit these businesses.

One section which caught my attention had to do with how social media platforms, especially Facebook, is deliberately designed around the idea of timelines and archives. It starts with how in 1700s, some Brazilian explorers in northwestern Brazil came across a tribe called the Pirahā, whose concept of language “refutes the laws of language discovered by Noam Chomsky”. Their language constructed their experience of time, where they do not remember or make meaning out of memory or abstract symbols of things that have been, or will be. According to linguist Dan Everett:

… they have no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing, and no words for “all,” “each,” “every,” “most,” or “few”— terms of quantification believed by some linguists to be among the common building blocks of human cognition.

But most outstanding is:

The tribe, he maintains, has no collective memory that extends back more than one or two generations, and no original creation myths.

In essence, the culture of the Pirahā people has no intention to remember the past or create history in comparison to our postmodern late capitalism cultures which seek to remember so much, which is now embodied in the designs of our social media platforms.

Gilroy Ware adds some very good additional quotes on remembering and forgetting, and the privilege of choosing between which is which. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger wrote in Delete that in digital age, “the capacity to forget is both virtuous and necessary”. Shakespeare scholar Emma Smith argued that “we need to remember how to forget”, calling the insistence on remembering everything as hyperthymesis, both a blessing and a curse. Most importantly, we need to remember that a history of database by itself is highly dubious — citing on one of its first applications was to keep track of concentration camp inmates in Nazi Germany.

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