Why the internet doesn’t mean “the end of forgetting”

Kate Eichorn’s new book The End of Forgetting fails to grasp the extent to which we are already haunted by our pasts.

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When I was six, my grandmother ran on to the stage during my first ever dance performance and tried to fix my ill-fitting costume mid-twirl. When I was ten, I mortified myself at the school spelling bee by misspelling the word “ambush”. At 12, I was seen with a very public period stain on my trousers by nearly half my year. And one Saturday night aged 15, my mother caught me sneaking out with a boy several years older than me and chewed him out so badly that the whole school knew about it by Monday.

These are some of my most embarrassing childhood memories. They still return to me over a decade later with undiminished force. They are memories that make me wince as a mostly un-embarrassed adult; stories that are retroactively funny and endearing, even if at the time they made me wish for an early death. And they still exist in an unadulterated form inside my head despite there being no record of them happening.

In The End of Forgetting, Kate Eichhorn puts forward the argument that, with social media, some of our worst childhood memories will become impossible to forget. With every shaming moment meticulously documented, she believes that we will have our “youthful lives broadcast on what may be best described as a continuous loop”. “The real crisis of the digital age,” she writes, “is not the disappearance of childhood, but the spectre of a childhood that can never be forgotten.” Eichhorn claims that the inability to mentally edit our youth – forgetting the bad and remembering the good – will lead to an emotional crisis, one that increased social media use will only perpetuate.

Eichhorn’s book is an important manual for anyone who regularly posts on social media. It outlines the dangers that platforms pose, makes a great case for more cautious posting, and advocates for increasing pressure on the tech companies that hold our data. But its conclusion – that we’ll never forget our most humiliating memories – fundamentally misunderstands the way young people document their childhood on social media and the extent to which we are already haunted by our pasts.

Much of Eichhorn’s argument relies on a set of niche case studies. She spends much of the book talking about children who become internet celebrities or memes (intentionally and unintentionally) and young people who become victims of cybercrime (such as revenge porn). She explains how the internet can be harmful to these children, with images and videos following them for the rest of their lives.

These records are extremely hard to destroy compared to a physical tape or photograph. But, while this is an entirely valid concern, most of the billions of young people in the world will not become the subject of viral content, or even content maliciously spread around their school. Less extreme memories – moments that are simply embarrassing – rarely make it through to teens’ carefully curated Instagram feeds, which tend to act as a highlights reel rather than an unmediated list of life’s occurrences. (This phenomenon, which puts a rose-coloured filter over complex or challenging memories, poses its own set of problems.)

Eichhorn points out that our data is “unforgettable” from an early age – that our digital footprint is permanent and belongs to other data-holders from the second we log on. Despite the ethical concerns, though, this has little to do with our actual memories. Facebook might know the results of a personality quiz you took in 2008, but do you ever dwell on the fact?

Eichhorn’s main concern is that social media will reduce us to our childhood selves, and she uses another flawed example to bolster this. She argues that when we add new colleagues on Facebook we let them trawl through terrible selfies from when we were 14 or blurry pictures from drunken uni nights out. But while it may be awkward, this doesn’t feel as grand a problem as “the end of forgetting”. More than anything, it’s a straightforward, modern conundrum that could be solved by deleting photos or simply not friending your new colleagues.

Despite these problems, The End of Forgetting has some genuinely perceptive sections. One of them is on “screen memories” – a term coined by Freud to describe the way in which we rewrite our memories to manage them better emotionally. Screen memories help us process trauma. They encourage us to look back on mostly good days without having to factor in the bad, and help us cope with painful memories to make their vivid details slightly softened. In an era of actual screens, Eichhorn argues, screen memories take on a whole new meaning: they are moments that can’t be recalled in gentler hues because they’re fossilised on our glaring phones and tablets.

Eichhorn’s book makes its most compelling point about the way our brains get trashed by memory overload. She cites a short story by Jorge Luis Borges in which a character gets hit on the head and wakes up being able to remember everything in vivid detail. The character refers to his own brain as a “garbage heap”; he is unable to forget the memories he no longer wants or needs. Eichhorn argues that the same has begun to happen to us.

Our obsessive marking of every mundane moment in our lives forces us to remember things it wouldn’t hurt to forget. She explains that even with apps like Snapchat – in which posts disappear after a maximum of 24 hours – teens screenshot the fleeting images from their friends because of their attachment to digital “artefacts”. Eichhorn outlines how our insatiable desire to digitally record every moment leads to over-loaded memory banks, to the point of irreparably damaging our ability to self-reflect: “They are souvenirs of an era,” Eichorn quotes literary critic Susan Stewart, “not of a self.”

I’ll never forget my grandma trying to fix my costume mid-dance, or my spelling bee catastrophe, or my period stain, and I’ll have to hear my mother retelling the story of scaring a teenage boy while I watched from our living room window many more times. These memories don’t dog me because they are digitally preserved, but simply because they were mortifying. The End of Forgetting misunderstands many things, most of which are rooted in its misguided title. But there are plenty of clear and compelling insights along the way. 

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman’s digital culture writer

The End of Forgetting: Growing Up with Social Media
Kate Eichhorn
Harvard University Press, 180pp, £16.95

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.

This article appears in the 23 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state