Amnesiac machines

Digital devices help me to forget in several ways.

  • If I store my bank details in my electronic note pad then I don’t need to commit them to memory. So I can forget such details.
  • Thanks to the immediacy of web acces and tools such as Wikipedia I can forget the capital of The Isle of Man. It’s easy enough to look up.
  • Digital social media keep me in touch with a pool of friends, colleagues and experts who I can consult when I have a query. I can let certain facts drift from memory because I’m a social being. The groups of which I’m a part know things that no individual on their own would know.

Trash basketThe intellectual skill in harvesting or dredging from this memory pool, is in knowing who to ask and where to look, though there are electronic aids for doing that as well. I don’t need to remember so much. I can afford to forget.

Then there are those painful, embarrassing, and redundant memories that constitute cognitive clutter ready for burial or extinction. Cathartic rituals such as deleting files, emails, links, todo items, browser histories and other memory prompts can help me forget.

As suggested in a previous post, computer files are not memories, but cues, triggers and traces that prompt memories in social human beings.

Forgetting can be coerced. As philosopher Paul Ricoeur and historian Hayden White remind us, genocides and other atrocities are attempts to erase memories of whole nations and peoples, by removing names, records and artefacts, though determined communities may seek to revive and reconstruct them.

We also need to forget in order to remember well. Forgetting is what it is to discriminate, to put things in order, to sift out the unnecessary and redundant. Memory has to be selective.

For memory theorist Maurice Halbwachs memories rely on socially constructed frameworks, eg the norms, practices and language games of family, friends, and belief systems. One way to forget is to remove these frameworks.

Forgetting is explained by the disappearance of these frameworks or of a part of them, either because our attention is no longer able to focus on them or because it is focussed somewhere else.” (p.172)

Moving to another city, circle of friends, set of possessions, culture, severs the social ties that sustain memories, turning recollections into disconnected reveries, that eventually fade.

To this range of environmental displacements I would add moving from one framework of cognitive and socio-technical support to another, abandoning one’s library, cancelling online journal subscriptions, losing your laptop.

A surplus of triggers and traces can also invoke forgetting. Triggers and traces that are too many in number, arbitrarily arranged and disordered might confuse and thereby engender forgetting. Inheriting someone else’s digital photo library might produce such an outcome.

In his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger argues that with computers it’s increasingly difficult to delete, and hence to forget.

But there are in fact no memories in computers. Social beings are the bearers of memory.

The cues, triggers, prompts and traces of computer databases may be difficult to delete, but forgetting is a distinctly human capability more complicated, profound and nuanced than erasing a file.


  • Halbwachs, Maurice. 1992. On Collective Memory. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Johnson, Michael. 2007. Review of Memory, History, Forgetting. By Paul Ricoeur. Translated by Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. Chicago, III: University of Chicago Press. Anglican Theological Review, (89) 1, 105-112.
  • Mayer-Schonberger, Viktor. 2009. Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Ricoeur, Paul. 2004. Memory, History, Forgetting [Kindle Edition]. Trans. K. Blamey, and D. Pellauer. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • White, Hayden. 2007. Review article: Guilty of history? The longue durée of Paul Ricoeur. History and Theory, (46)233-251.

About Richard Coyne

The cultural, social and spatial implications of computers and pervasive digital media spark my interest ... enjoy architecture, writing, designing, philosophy, coding and media mashups.


15 thoughts on “Amnesiac machines

  1. The human amnesiac reminds me of the Curious Case of Benjamin Button: in the process of human revolution we are expected to become smarter and capable of remember more things—in accordance with Benjamin’s younger and younger appearance. However, from the inside our memory actually get worse, for there are too many technologies which make us”afford to forget”.
    Personally I have a method to help me to remember or forget one thing. Generally emotion is harder to forget than the data or information— I still can remember every detail of the day broke up with my boyfriend more than one year ago, but lost the memory of the book I read last month. So if you need to choose something to remember, put emotion into it. In reverse change it into data. For example, to remember the details about your bank account just imagine the money you deposit into will goes to your most beloved ones, setting numbers about one of them so it can be easily remembered— as long as your love is true. Conversely if you had a bad day which extremly necessary to be forget, code it with the date which things happened, such as 23102011, I’m sure the number in you mind will fade away soon.
    But there is an important question: Why should we learn how to forget? Only to remember well other more necessary things or to have a simpler life? For me keep forgetting things is not a good trendy. In my opinion ,only what’s really been remembered can be counted as really been occupied. Human brain is a database rather than a search engine. Although we are living in an era of information explosion, we still can distinguish the most important parts which needed to be keep in mind.

    Posted by Ameko | October 23, 2011, 2:12 pm
  2. Is it really important as to whether or not we remember such small things like our bank details or the capitol of estonia, should we be able to recite random trivia at any given moment? Does this prove we are smarter than someone with no trivia? No I don’t think so. Surely if the digital age takes away the pressure of having to remember long pieces of information then that frees our mind to be more creative and imaginitive. Personaly I keep my bank details in a note book, what is the distinction between doing that or typing them in to a digital device? No one has ever commented on pen and paper negatively effecting their memory. I find that if a number is over ten digits long it is incredibly difficult to accurately remember, the human mind isn’t really designed to be used in this way unless you’re rain man ofcourse. If I had been to Estonia or had a friend who lived there I would remember the name of the capitol. I maintain that if something is important or of interest to me I will remember it regardless of how much information is available on the internet.
    I am reminded of the film ‘Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind’ by the discussion of deleting human memories like computer files. I think the film highlights the appeal of being able to have control over our minds in the same way we have control over our desk tops, deleting unwanted or painful memories made as easy as deleting a file sounds great to me. I know the film was designed to illustrate that we souldn’t think about our feelings and memories in this way and raises a lot of questinos about identity but that’s easy to say when you’re not feeling misserable about an old flame you wish would dissapear from your mind. I’d sign up, maybe some day 🙂

    Posted by Atika Bennamane s1162646 | October 24, 2011, 11:55 am
  3. In digital age, computers help people remember a lot of things, so people are forced to forget details, for example, bank details in electronic note pad, work schedules in Google calendar, photos of family’s in hardware of pc, friends’ name in Facebook and twitter. What an ironic, when people wake up and find themselves forget spelling their names correctly without computer. Can I say: humans make them to be forgotten by themselves?

    In fact, social humans are not only undertaking the risk of “Amnesia”, but also the trouble of cannot be deleted. In nowadays, the way that people get in touch with each other is more and more complex, so when a couple breaks up , it is also appears to be difficult to cut off from past relation completely. A lot of things such as emptying email box, updating online profile, removing number from cell phone and updating MSN all should be done. Breaking up in digital age starts from “deleting”, however, even though a couple has broken up for a period of time, they will have a relationship linked by digital, because it is easy to find clues or traces of he or she in network. Modern information technology allows us to record large amounts of data easily, meanwhile, it still bothers us when we delete or update them. Humans will always be obsessed with “Digital debris”.

    Posted by QINGWEN XIE_DDM | October 30, 2011, 7:35 pm
  4. I find it very interesting to think about the combined act of deleting and forgetting, particularly in the digital age. After completing my undergrad degree, I went through a major Facebook purge. It certainly was a thought-provoking experience–the majority of people who I deleted I couldn’t remember. I knew when we had met, but beyond that had no memories associated with them. The act of deleting, and thus forgetting, became intoxicating.

    Of course, this forgetting isn’t permanent. With the trail we leave behind us on social networking sites and on the internet, there will always be some trace of our presence, of a previous ‘friendship.’

    Which brings me to a thought regarding the future. How will future historians and social anthropologists study our culture, as so much is online? So much of our lives no longer exists in tactile forms. Our social history is stored on computers and servers. Should something happen to servers, would our society still function? And, will history look on this era as another Golden Age or Dark Age?

    Posted by Beth | November 1, 2011, 8:37 pm
    • I shared some similar experience with you. Indeed, you can easily forget times that you spend with your acquaintances or even forget that person, but the trial you leave behind on cyber and the internet will always be there to prove that you really once had some connection with “someone”.

      Your question is quite inspiring. I think with the rapid development of contemporary technology, tactile materials that used to store information may gradually fade out and replace by intangible ways in next few decades. However, that replacement may not be completely. A combination between traditional ways and digital methods to commute and store information may be utilized by humans and the tangible material will be more durable.

      Posted by Zhe Wang | November 23, 2013, 10:51 pm
      • Photos, diary entries, important emails: we are probably not printing them out and stashing them away in boxes. We rely on successive generations of bigger and cheaper electronic storage, and backups, all of which can vanish or become unreadable with a few key strokes, or we store them on media that will become obsolete and unreadable in twenty years time.

        Posted by Richard Coyne | November 23, 2013, 11:12 pm
  5. I think our technique of remembering has changed, it is apparent to me that sometimes I make little attempt to remember details, putting the effort into knowing where to find the information if its required, externalising memory? I sometimes get frustrated when returning to an online source I find it has changed, edited, and I’m driven to seek earlier copies of the source to compare changes. is the online culture leading to an environment where fact is an increasingly flexible concept?

    Posted by Ian Hynd | November 2, 2011, 12:23 pm
  6. There’s a superb quote by Nietzsche about having a bad memory…although I don’t remember it, so I’ll go google it now.

    Posted by Nick Humphrey | November 2, 2011, 10:37 pm
  7. According to research from the journal “Science” in 2007, the world’s stored data is 295 exabytes. As Dr. Martin Hilbert mentioned “If we were to take all that information and store it in books, we could cover the entire area of the US or China in 13 layers of books”. Most of this information is accessible by people who have computers and Internet connections, and as a result many people have the opportunity to extend their knowledge. The human brain cannot hold all this information but one can save information to computers in order to recall it when necessary. Knowledge can be assimilated not only through text but also through video and sound, which can be easier to remember. Moreover, if we know something but we are not sure about it we can verify it online.
    As Ian Hynd said ‘we have externalized our memory’ and we use computers as “memory assistants”. In my opinion, the way we use them can either aid our knowledge or hamper it. For example we can use a G.P.S. to learn new routes and new places or just follow the directions to a destination without remembering the route.
    Nowadays, digital devices can help us refresh our memory faster in comparison to previous years. However we have to bear in mind that if we rely too much on them, we can loose the ability to write or remember correctly and as a result we can feel less confident in our ability to recall knowledge.

    Reference: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-12419672

    Posted by Boteas Orfeas | November 4, 2011, 6:01 pm
  8. In terms of memorization of rote numbers, I have always been terrible at memorizing numerical data. I could not for the life of me tell you what street my favorite bars and restaurants are in New York, and I could barely remember the street I used to live at not half a year ago (all the streets in New York are numerical). But if you were to place me at Union Square or the East Village or what have you, I could easily walk to the places of interest without needing a map (or smart phone). I think some of us have a better tendency to remember some things than others, and for me I’m much better at remembering the lay of the land rather than the technical details of it.

    That being said, I do know that I used to be able to store many more telephone numbers in my head than now, perhaps because it took me such an effort to remember them – I still can recite both my best friends’ from elementary school’s numbers. For a period of time just after I started toting around my own cell phone, I gave up on memorizing numbers at all. But then I realized I was slowly losing memory for such common things that I’ve forced myself to learn and remember the important ones when they come. Unfortunately that’s lead to me having a permanent knowledge of my ex’s phone number which, although I’ve deleted from my phone, can’t delete from my head. Thankfully I haven’t drunk dialed it… yet.

    Posted by Auilix | November 5, 2011, 12:59 pm
  9. A new study shows that the computer and the spread of the Internet are changing the basic way of human’s memory. Nowadays people once meet problems, the first thing is to find answer from the computer.
    And when the people knows that the answer and information of the problems can be found in computer, their memory will become very poor, but the memory of the position where the answer storage on the computer is deepen. The Internet is like an “exchange” memory system.
    In my opinion Human body has two memory systems: an” external memory” and “internal memory”. “Internal memory” is the human brain recording every moment of the, changes watching, hearing, feeling, smelling, and touching. But when the human brain to store information is outweigh the limit of cranial capacity, if people still to absorb overload information that will lead to people can’t remember new information. “External memory” is the computer, it is equal to the human brain’s ” mobile hard disk ” or “the second brain”, and played the role of stored information at any time If some of the information we can find it online, our memory will tell us to go to online to find that, which is the external storage memory.
    Someone mentioned that Search engine damage the rain memory. I think, instead, the computer helps us to memory. Because there are a lot of things, maybe we have forgotten, but, through the Internet search, we just need a little bit of information such as a word, a color, it can restore our overall memory. Many people after search, they do not consciously to remember it, this phenomenon will lead a lot of debris will be produced in our memory, which is called garbage information. Too much reliance on the search engines will result in the drop of memory.
    With the continuous development of science and technology, the society is changing. I think, people need to remember information which is really too much and too multifarious. The search engine can help people to solve this problem, it will not cause damage to human memory.

    Posted by wangyan | December 12, 2011, 1:59 am
  10. It is true that computer don’t have memories. The term memory is a human construct that tries to encompass our recollection of events, our recollection of events however contain a vast scope of information, sight, smell, sounds, emotions, physical feelings to name but a few, the word memory dispenses with all these terms in a way that allows us to talk about past event under the umbrella category of memory.

    When we use memory in regards to computers it once again encompasses a whole variety of meanings that refers to storage, disk space, performance etc but we have chosen to give it the umbrella name of memory. I would argue that memory in relation to computers is an incorrect term. The computer did not experience the events we are putting into it, it didnt listen to the song we have stored or watch the film, it did not experience therefore it cannot remember.

    In substitution to the word memory I would argue that when we talk of computer we should refer to their data storage capacity as, in essence all they do is store a whole load of 1’s and 0’s and it is only through the creative input of computer programmers and users that these 1’s and 0’s come to mean anything.

    As to whether computer make us forget, well, I would have to suggest that they are a double edged sword. Computers are excellent at helping us remember things if we are organised in our filing and they are working properly. Assuming both of these prerequisites are adhered to then . they certainly help us remember a great deal of things from family members birthdays to meetings to holiday memories (via photo, video etc.).

    When a computer goes wrong however, when they crash, when they succumb to the digital equivalent to mortality they take with them everything we have committed to their safe keeping. If we are organised and the destruction of the old computer is planned (e’g an upgrade etc.) then there neededn’t be any issues, f however the dieath of the machine is unexpected it can be catastrophic. I need not mention all the vital things that are stored on our various digital devices, the example of a lost/broken phone will suffice; all those numbers that 15 – 20 years ago you would have memorized or had written down disappear with your phone, there is no back up (for the unprepared).

    I only know two phone numbers, my home phone, and the number of the girlfriend I had when i was 16, since the age of 16 and my first mobile phone (late I know) I have never had to remember a single number, I program them to a contact name and then forget them and inveitably have to start from scratch when I drop yet another phone itno a pint glass. This is a very simple example to show how computers help us forget, if we let them, we could back everything up and write everything down but that would be far too much effort ……. Maybe we should also discuss to what extent computers make us lazy? No I’ll just Google it.

    Posted by Alex Pearson (s0564045) | November 7, 2012, 4:48 pm


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