Memory as a Wikipedia Page


I don’t know anyone’s phone number, address or email address anymore. I don’t remember appointments, my agenda is on my phone and I get an alert. I don’t remember any of my passwords, they’re stored either in the app or in my browser. If I loose my phone I’m screwed, but only temporarily because all that information is backed up in the cloud somewhere.

On the plus side there is an unlimited memory that I can access in the sense that there is nothing Google doesn’t know, the days of playing Google Whack are over.

We tend to think of memory as being a storage, our own biological repository of true things that really happened, our own database that we can Google to recall.

It turns out that human memory functions less like a database and more like Wikipedia. That is we can create overwrite and change what we recall, and – here’s the wiki bit – other people can distort our memories. In this TED talk Elizabeth Loftus talks about the ways our memories can be subtly altered by what people ask us and even what words they use.

As shown in the video this has implications in crime solving, eye witness accounts can be manipulated as people are primed by something as simple as replacing the word “hit” with “smashed” in a description of an accident.

But it also has implications for all of us, having a wikipedia page for a memory is how we become vulnerable to gaslighting,  an insidious form of manipulation that includes persistent denial of the truth, deliberate lying, and manipulating the environment to make the victim doubt their own memory.

The usual setting for gaslighting is within a relationship, and it has been connected with narcissistic or sociopathic personalities and with abuse.

But what if we can all, collectively fall victim to gaslighting?  This accusation has been hurled at various politicians, most recently at the new President of the US. Various news outlets have called his behaviour gaslighting, including Business Insider, The GuardianCNN, Teen Vogue, the Washington Post, NBC, and the earliest example I could find in the Telegraph. The antidote to this has been the rise and rise of fact checkers.

The good news is that we have a global database now, it’s called the internet and we can search for sources, explanations, and the person’s own words.

The other piece of good news is that because our memories are wiki pages we can consciously choose to re-write the memory. For many years I was vaguely claustrophobic, I would avoid small spaces and if I had to be in one I would get highly anxious, never to the level of a full panic attack but unpleasant. I thought it was due to one event where for a joke two guys picked me up and shut me into the boot/trunk of someone’s car. When they finally let me out I was crying, shaking, and furious.  I changed the “script” of that event and cast myself as a circus performer escaping, Houdini-style, from the car’s boot with feather headdress and a flourish.  Am I cured? Well I won’t be joining the Speleology Club any time soon but I’m not anxious in a lift/elevator any more.

Our memories record the good and the bad stuff, just like wikipedia; and just like wikipedia the can be edited. Pay attention, be aware of the editing.

If you think you’re being “nudged” to change your view check the facts. If you think you need a record of something photograph it. Use the tools to help you keep a database, your brain won’t.

When I travel around the Netherlands by train I leave my bike at central station, amongst the 4,000 other bikes and I don’t always remember where I parked it. I’ve taken to photographing the view from where the bike is parked. My memory on bike location is definitely a wiki page, and I seem to randomly recall previous page versions.

Image: Memories  |  Stefanos Papachristou  |  CC BY-NC2.0

That’s a direct quote from Mark D’Arcy, global director of creative solutions, Facebook as he spoke at an event at the New Zealand High Commission in London last week.

It’s true, by using the internet our memory is now effectively infinite. We can record appointments, birthdays, photos, videos of family events, comments, and store them all forever. We can access all these memories on any device, any time , anywhere.

He went on to say that everything that has ever been known is recorded and you can find it online. Which is only partially true; there is no image of my grandmother online, she died before I was born and there are only about four people alive who can confirm I look like her – this knowledge is not online. There is a record of my father’s parents online – but the date of their marriage is wrong by about 50 years (making all their children born out of wedlock).

Not everything known is codified, recorded and online; and not everything online is correct.

It is true that common questions can be answered with a dozen keystrokes. Midnight, wine-fueled debates on which is colder Beijing or Edinburgh or who makes the best wine are shorter and duller – some whizz-kid will pull out his smart phone and google the question; game over. Our perfect infinite memory may be the ultimate conversation killer.

In contrast, also in London, I saw an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum called Memory Palace. The exhibition imagines what it would be like to walk into a book; the book imagines a future London when the internet has been destroyed by a “digital storm” and structured knowledge is lost. A vision in which the book’s hero tries to recreate memory. Words turn out to be a code, knowledge loses it’s value and in the end human memory is lost.

The exhibition ends by giving you the opportunity to contribute the one memory, just one. As if there may not be room for all our memories, no way to hold all that knowledge, and no way to codify the emotion.

Even with the theoretical infinity of the internet recording our memories; the result is imperfect and vulnerable.


Post Script; If you’re in London take the time to visit the exhibition – it’s brilliantly done, by a group of artists who were each given one passage from the book to inspire their artwork. You can see some of the artists talking about their work on the exhibition website; here’s one describing one of my favourite pieces in the exhibition.


Image; face

In memory

Sometimes, if you’re very lucky, you get the boss you need just at the right moment.

That was the case for me in 2005 when I started working for Theo van der Biessen then head of the New Media Team at ING’s Corporate Communications department. He gave me a long list of things to do and then left me to it.  I don’t mean he was a hands-off manager I mean he literally left me to it – he took the next three months off work to have heart surgery. I sent him hand-written notes every couple of weeks to let him know my progress, and somehow I thrived with the lack of attention.

Don’t get me wrong, Theo was no saint, there were many, many, days when he drove me crazy. He’d organise his day in such away that he had no time to go from one meeting to another – and was therefore always late. He wasn’t very organised around various management tasks – making our lives difficult on occasion. So of course he came in for his fair share of complaints.

In 2008 the team was split, with Theo leading the events team – which was the stuff he really loved, and me leading what became the Web Expert Centre – which is the stuff I really love.  So Theo wasn’t my boss for all that long but he had a deep impact, I learnt a lot about being good at my job and a lot the human side of being a good manager.

I think the biggest lesson I learnt was from seeing how much Theo cared, genuinely cared, for his team. He trusted us, he supported us – even when he didn’t agree 100% with what we were doing, and when we screwed up he was there to help solve the problem. Remarkably I never once heard him say “I told you so”. He was full of creativity and encouragement, he had masses of ideas – not all of them good, but some of them great, and he was always generous to me, and my team.

After that first heart surgery Theo recovered rather well for a few years, and then started to get sicker, eventually undergoing a series of open-heart surgeries, each one piling risk onto his damaged heart. The last surgery proved too much, and on the Saturday after the operation I heard that he had passed away. Despite knowing how sick he had been I was shocked. Theo had so much life and energy in him it seemed utterly impossible news.

I didn’t know it when I signed up for the job back in 2005, but I was extremely lucky to know and work with Theo.