Imagine a not too distant future, in which our current obsession with instant, online sharing has been intensified to new heights. There we all are, walking around in a haze of holograms as we snip, crop and filter the world into a catalogue of images, posting them online in real-time, sharing our experiences as they happen. This is the future that filmmaker Francois Ferracci envisions in his three minute film Lost Memories. And from the way things are going, it doesn’t seem at all farfetched.
But as well as anticipating our near future, Lost Memories also questions how these images of the world might impinge upon our memories of it. The very purpose of taking a photo is to capture our experiences for future reference. Some might even say a photograph is a vague and distant memory made tangible. Yet research suggests that taking a photo can actually hinder our ability to remember an event fully, a phenomenon researchers are referring to as the “photo-taking impairment effect.” The study’s author explains, "It’s as if they click the button to take the photo and mentally think 'Done, next thing.’ They don’t engage in the processing that would lead to long term memory." Strangely, rather than supplementing our memories and guiding our thoughts back to the original experience, our photographs might actually be replacing these memories, serving as a substitute for cognitive recall.
Today nearly every experience is deemed social media worthy. From the moment we open our eyes (#WokeUpLikeThis) to aerial snapshots of our dinner, there’s almost nothing we aren’t willing to share. And who can blame us for wanting to capture as much of our lives as possible in an effort to remember? Perhaps we should be lauded for our efficient use of digital resources, allowing us to take advantage of an externalised memory that far exceeds the capacity of the human brain. Vast hordes of information can be physically compressed and shrunk down, masses of it stored virtually in the tiniest bit of cyberspace. Why worry about organic memory at all when we can digitally retrieve and read all that data at the click of a button?
Of course, with this reliance on externalised memory comes the threat of Ferracci’s digital blackout, an unnerving prospect that would banish our memories into an inaccessible, cyber void. But, as Shona Illingworth's exhibition reminds us, the possibility of this happening to any one of us through amnesia, dementia or brain injury lingers precariously on the landscape.
Yet when we think about the way in which people use social media to portray a certain, often improved, version of themselves, it’s clear that this externalised memory isn’t actually a storage of our past experiences per se. Our social media profiles are really an archive of representations of our experiences. Each “memory” is purposefully constructed, crafted for a wider online audience through careful framing, preening and editing. In living through our screens, experiencing through our cameras and streams of Twitter consciousness, are we forming memories through the eyes of others in a warped kind of self-surveillance?
What’s more, Facebook’s new On This Day feature, which pops up every so often on our newsfeeds, strives to forge connections between our personal, organic memories and our social, external memories as though there is no difference between the two. This attempt at digital nostalgia asks us to recall experiences we ultimately, if research is correct, never committed to memory in the first place. Instead, we begin subsuming externalised memories that our social media persona created, blurring the distinction further between our real and our online selves.
Explore these themes in our new exhibition Follow, open to the public from Friday 11 December. With the support of the Culture Programme of the European Union