In 2006 Google or To Google was added to the Oxford English Dictionary as a transitive verb.
Any review of the Computer Age at the end of the 20th Century may remember a period of over excited speculation before the ruin, for many, caused by an IT bubble. It could also be epitomized by the much heralded doomsday scenario of Y2K meltdown, predicted to arrive on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999. This, almost none event, which actually created the bubble, still made a million overpaid IT specialists even richer before it finally burst in March 2000.
In twenty years time the first decades of the 21st Century may be remembered for some catastrophic cyber attack or attacks that have yet to happen? Although I suspect any later review of this period, in say fifty years, will remember it as the period a whole generations began surrendering their aptitude for memory to the search engine by using the internet as a kind of external memory.
Last month I asked the son of a friend, who had just returned from Peru, a country I had visited, which places he liked most in the country. After the fairly predictable Cuzco the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu he struggled to recall even a single place by name, despite spending six weeks there. He clearly wanted to tell me how much he had enjoyed his trip, and un-thwarted by a lack of Wifi during a power cut, he began flicking through his iPad until he found a picture of him and his girlfriend stood by a crooked sign for Colca Canyon. “That was an amazing place,” he said. “We saw giant condors; did you know it’s twice the size of the Grand Canyon?” – I did know.
By the time Wifi was finally restored I had almost forgotten our conversation until he returned brandishing a newly downloaded Top 10 list of places to visit in Peru and was soon waxing lyrical about the Nazca Lines and places such as the desert oasis of Huacachina and the floating Islands of Lake Titicaca. We reminisced for a while, until I wondered, out loud, if it worried him that he had struggled to remember these fairly significant places, but without even missing a beat, he told me he didn’t need to fill his brain with details, when he knew exactly how to Google all his stuff.
Of course, it’s a generational thing. Yes, there are older people around like Stephen Fry, who some believe invented Twitter almost single handily. But for every Mr Fry, there are a thousand or even ten thousand, who are quite happy to get their information more traditionally from a newspaper or from the TV. This doesn’t mean they are averse to Googling or using modern media appliances or services, but they are less inclined to totally depend on such technology as an external memory and are perhaps simply too modest or suspicious of using those services in a ‘please look at me, me, me!’ fashion, which some consider as the base impulse lying at the heart of many social media platforms.
I discovered just how fragile memory could be after being stabbed, severely beaten around the head and left for dead following a street robbery in Istanbul eight years ago. For six months I suffered intermittent amnesia and it is hard to describe the anxiety, the terror even, of not remembering, what should be easy to recall. But my memory did come back, mostly, aided by the countless post-it notes to myself, which papered the inside of my house. I still forget things of course, but calm myself with the mantra, that it is a natural part of the aging process. However, what will happen to Generation Y,Z or Alpha, if the technology they so depend on begins to fail or worse still, deliberately misleads them?
What happens if the memories you have, or believe you have, have been moved from the place you thought they could safely be found, or worse, are altered without you even noticing? For how would you know for sure, what really was and wasn’t anymore if you have long since relegated the natural but perhaps tiresome act of laying down memories of personal events or newsworthy fact, to some search engine? Who or what might then hold all the power?
Occasionally I might watch one of those ‘Looking back at the 70’s, 80’s or 90’s’ nostalgia programs and wonder who had selected what was important from that era, such as news events, TV shows or say someone’s top 5 musical singles; well you know the format… because it bore little resemblance to the choices I would have made. After scrutiny you may just spot that the production company responsible actually has an interest or hold the rights to those things featured. On the whole this hoodwinking is fairly innocuous; so what if a singer sells a few more downloads or one of those shows is soon to be repeated on your TV. It is their company so let them stroke their egos by putting themselves forward as some kind of Nostaligensia of our youth, if you like, because if we disagree , all we really need to do is turn the annoying program off.
However, this brings me to the main question – In a world forty or fifty years from now, when our forgetful children and grandchildren perhaps find it easier to remember the name of some must have item worn by a person, who is simply famous for being famous in 2013, or the name of said persons baby, ahead of the fact that there was ever an Arab Spring or that this year heralded the end of a brief period when Whistle-blowing was actively encouraged through legislation before it was eventually twisted into a Capital offence.
Who will edit and manipulate our ideas of what was good and bad, who will ultimately control this New Nostaligensia? Will it be some behemoth search-engine company grown fat from such new novelties as charging you for your personal archives or perhaps some new innovations like retrospective product placement, where bottles of famous cola or beer become prominent during some old news clip or event? If there is money to be had it could happen? But in that mid century, overpopulated and overheated world of people worn down by the food and water wars that will inevitably come, many governments will have grown bigger and got tougher to protect their own national interests, from a myriad of (real or imagined), sectarian or other terrorist threats. So do you really believe they will always resist any chance to seize these companies in the name of National Security, or at the very least, so heavily censor the content provided, that the vast majority of their citizens, who have not burdened themselves with a reliable memory will eventually just have to believe the mandarins, when they declare: “You have never had it so good!”
Finally, just one last question for all those smug, it could never happen to me Generation X’ers out there. Did you actually spot or feel unease at the deliberate lie about your own recent history in the very first paragraph? The Y2K bug had only a minimal effect on the Dot-Com Bubble, which burst so spectacularly just thirteen years ago… remember?