Over the last few years, I’ve learnt to take survey findings with a pinch of salt (a mineral responsible for obesity, according to a 2015 survey). I’ve learnt that bacon causes cancer, gives you heart disease and is better than sex. I’ve heard that vegetarians live longer but also die earlier. I’ve learnt that surveys are so exasperatingly contradictory that it’s really much simpler to ignore whether I should be doing more cardio or eating fewer sausages.
The only survey that really resonated with me cropped up in 2013, and explored the rise of digitally-induced memory loss. I was born in 1990, around ten years before the internet really took off, and I’ve always felt lucky to have experienced the world with and without digital technology. I remember tedious multimedia encyclopaedias and manually typing in ringtones on my Nokia 3310. I also remember spending hours editing Myspace HTML and agonizing over a social media status. I followed the survey with interest through 2014 (‘8 Ways Tech Has Completely Re-Wired Our Brains’), 2015 (‘Internet use is causing digital amnesia’) and 2016 (‘Humans Have Shorter Attention Spans Than Goldfish, Thanks To Smart Phones’).
I don’t need any surveys to tell me that we’re technology-obsessed – I’ve checked Facebook seven times since starting this article – but is our preoccupation with all things digital harming our memories?
At a pub quiz last week, my friend couldn’t remember the name of a celebrity he’d watched a documentary on the night before. Another blanched when giving her boyfriend’s address in the post office. My best friend has had the same mobile phone number since she was fifteen; I used to type it in from memory and now I couldn’t guess it if my life depended on it. With an infinity of information available at our fingertips, the thought of actually committing anything to memory seems absurd – the instant gratification of Google encourages such lazy learning that I’ve often forgotten an answer the second I close my internet window.
Yet if we’re looking for the villain behind our generational forgetfulness, I don’t blame digital technology. Instead, I blame the real news, barely-news and definitely-not-news that we’re using our smart phones for. It’s become hard to remember information, because it’s become hard to identify what’s worth knowing. The internet has evolved into a confusing mishmash of politics, policies and pop culture, a place where it’s impossible to differentiate between George Osborne’s face and Kylie Jenner’s arse. Every new headline spawns twenty blog posts, seventy hashtags and three hundred tweets, all of which are obsolete by the time they’re posted.
We’re a nation who spend twenty-three days a year online, or five hundred and fifty-two hours. It isn’t a lack of knowledge we’re suffering from; it’s an enormous baffling fog of it.