Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Forget This Article

Mass amnesia and the internet, part one.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.
Source: Image courtesy of Unsplash.

We have entered a new era of mass Historical Amnesia, and oddly enough, we really seem to be enjoying it. To force a metaphor, it’s like we’re burning the entire library of history so we can toast marshmallows on the flames.

The main reason for this new period of forgetting is the internet. And this is ironic because the internet was supposed to be the great engine of eternal remembering, the infinite library of Jorge Luis Borges brought to life. Once information entered the net it was supposed to remain there, fixed and saved forever, or so the pioneering seers of the internet proclaimed back in the 90s. However, without us realizing it, the internet has unleashed a spate of unintended consequences—as all unmonitored mass psycho-social experiments tend to, and all are connected to different aspects of amnesia; from brain function to historical erasure.

The first form of the New Amnesia is the shrinkage of concentration spans caused by mobile phone usage. A Microsoft Corp study of 2015 revealed that the attention spans decreased from 12 seconds on average in 2000 to just 8.25 seconds in 2015. That's a human attention span which is shorter than that of a goldfish (9 seconds). This is going on while we rewire our brains to skim and flick, with the average phone user picking up their phone 1,500 times per week, or 214 times a day. That's a lot of distraction.

In “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” journalist Nicholas Carr claimed that the internet is teaching our brains, through neuroplasticity, to inhabit a distracted mode, more and more of the time. We're fooling ourselves into thinking we're multi-tasking when all we are doing is learning how to skim, forget and move on. This habit prevents people from retaining content because so much information is being presented at the same time. We’re overloaded and we’re forgetting even as we watch.

In our increasingly tech-dependent society exposure to cell phone radiation may also negatively affect the brains of adolescents, causing potentially harmful effects to their memory performance, according to a research team at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute. We’re also becoming dependent on the internet to ‘be our memory for us’. Rather than trawl our minds for facts, we jump on Google. How many times have you done this yourself, when stuck for a word or fact while in company with friends? "Wait," you say 'I'll Google it". As a result, we’re letting natural personal brain memory atrophy and ‘digital dementia’ is occurring, according to German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer.

We're also scrambling the historical record through a plague of misattribution. It may not seem that important but, for example, the philosophers Epictetus (55-135AD) and Epicurus (341-270 BC) are now hopelessly confused with each other on internet quote-memes. Tragic really as Epictetus wrote at length on the dangers of Epicureanism. On a more trivial level—unless you're in the music business—the pop song "My Sharona" (1979) by "The Knack" is misattributed to The Ramones, across millions of views with dozens of social media and music sites duplicating the attribution error.

Politicians are also increasingly credited with things they didn’t say. There’s “9 popular quotes commonly misattributed to Abe Lincoln.” Hillary Clinton has had to fight off quotes attributed to her that she never uttered, while Donald Trump used the saying, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” during his 2016 presidential campaign, attributing it, as many others have done, to Mahatma Ghandi; but there is no record of Ghandi ever having said this. Misattribution online only gets compounded over time. It acts like a palimpsest; erasing the truth that lay beneath it.

In 2015, a Maya Angelou commemorative stamp featured a quote she didn’t write: A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” The quote actually comes from Joan Walsh Anglund, a children’s book author, from her poetry collection “A Cup of Sun” in 1967. The misattribution originated from internet memes and no one noticed the mistake until it was already too late. The commemorative stamp with the epic misquote was endorsed at a large opening ceremony attended by Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama, so the misattribution entered history with a fanfare.

Maya Angelou reading at Clinton inauguration (1993)
Source: Source: Wikipedia.

It's rather disturbing, given that the stamp was originally commissioned as a result of a political petition to the United States Postal Service. A petition which included the argument: Stamps have featured people for their notable accomplishments in the arts. They have included American heroes, but one is missing.” Ironically, and sadly, the stamp ended up embodying just how little factual history matters to us today.

Witness also the current internet debate as to whether Stalin did in fact say that famous horrific quote attributed to him on many internet sites: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions a statistic." Or whether it was, in fact, said by Oliver Cromwell, as The Independent argues or even an unnamed Frenchman in a 1948 edition of the Atlantic Magazine. And of course this confusion has knock-on effects on how we perceive Stalin, who is currently becoming popular again, as is Mao Zedong, thanks to the historical revisionism and historical amnesia. This is greatly facilitated by the internet with its websites and memes that claim that real communism has never been attempted or that the genocides, purges and man-made famines of Mao and Stalin, which collectively amount to between 60 and 120 million unnatural deaths, have been greatly exaggerated.

The internet is particularly good at creating historical confusion around the issue of just how many deaths the communists were guilty of in the 20th century (as I explored in another essay). It is as if the internet was a machine that was invented to perpetuate and multiply the cynical postmodern mantra that there is no such thing as singular truth, only conflicting narratives of the truth. But wait, who even said that—was it Michel Foucault or Mao Zedong? Or both?

Then there is the phenomenon of pranking on Wikipedia, one that exposes just how easy it is to tamper with history within the online encyclopedia and get away with it. In one noticeable, and light-hearted, incident, British journalist Hugo Rifkind on the day of the announcement of the royal wedding of Prince William went to the Wikipedia page for "29 April" and added some text to it. He inserted fictitious information about Queen Victoria—injuring her toe during a fly-fishing trip in Scotland in 1872. The information was then duly repeated by two of the top national newspapers in the UK—which ironically, were then later used to verify Rifkind’s Wikipedia entry in a kind of informational ouroboros. Other Wikipedia pranks are not so light and extend to historical hoaxes and defamation. The gold standard for Wikipedia entries is, after all, not some notion of objective truth but that of "verifiability."

Continued in Part Two.

More from Ewan Morrison
More from Psychology Today