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You wake up with the sweet tang of Sambuca at the back of your throat. Your head is made of grease-streaked concrete. The effort required to drag it off the pillow leaves you sitting breathless on the edge of the bed, waiting for the strength to stand. You can’t even begin to think about what happened last night. You can’t think about anything at this stage; you’re a zombie, your arms outstretched for coffee and breakfast.
Later, having tried unsuccessfully to degrease your face, you check your Facebook and see there are red balloons in the top right hand corner. It gives you a thrill, though you know it’s probably just an invite to an event you won’t attend. You click the balloons anyway, and find that somebody’s uploaded photos from the night before. Each one’s at a progressively tilted angle, and shows increasingly terrible things, some of which seem familiar, and some of which you’d forgotten completely.
And that, right there, is why Facebook is better than your brain. While you were sleeping (or indeed, still dancing like a twat in some dimly lit booze-hole), Facebook has already processed the events into folders and albums, complete with times and dates. Your brain, on the other hand, has either filtered out most of what happened (having deemed it unimportant), or else is engaged in consolidating the traces of memories it has admitted. This process of consolidation involves moving a memory from one part of the brain to another, from short term to long term memory, and eventually to places in the brain even super-clever science types don’t really know much about. This process is a slow one (even without the stupefying effects of alcohol), taking anything from hours to years to complete, during which time the memory may only be available to you in dreams. Facebook memories, for better or worse, are instantly available the morning after.
Of course, Facebook wouldn’t have memories if it weren’t for the input of you and your friends. A specimen like you, mired in substance abuse and sans camera phone, is entirely reliant on other people’s Facebook uploads to remember where you were any given night.
This delegation of memory is nothing new though; people have always relied on other members of their social groups to store information on their behalf. Perhaps, in the old days, your partner would remember your friends’ birthdays for you, while you remembered where to hit the TV when it starts playing up. Now, with ubiquitous access to the internet, you no longer need to rely on your partner because Facebook issues birthday reminders – you no longer have to call your music geek friend to find out the name of that singer who did that song you like – you just google it instead. A recent article in Scientific American (Vol 309, Issue 6) suggested that reliance on the internet for information decreases our ability to remember it for ourselves, producing an attitude that can be summed up as: “why learn when you can google?” The article called the internet “the external hard drive for our memories,” and explained how we are increasingly treating it as an all-knowing member of our social group.
If the above is true, then Facebook is a friend who knows all the parties and clubs you’ve been to over the last year. It’s seen you at your best, and liked you at your worst. It knows who you’re dating, and will never forget your birthday. Best of all, it’s always interested in you. “What’s on your mind?” it asks, every time you visit.
And what is on your mind? Well, too much as it turns out. Not content with out-stripping the brain, Facebook (and the Internet at large) could be damaging its capacity for remembering in more disturbing ways than simply inducing google-search-laziness. The process of memory consolidation requires periods where the brain is less active, periods which are becoming ever scarcer in our age of information overload. There’s simply too much stuff on an average person’s newsfeed for the brain to handle. As soon as we acquire one piece of information, another one’s there to push it from your mind, then another, and another, meaning nothing’s actually absorbed or consolidated. One scientist likened the modern mind to a full glass of water. We keep topping it up with attention-grabbing items, but soon they too will flow down the outside of the glass, a never-ending stream of memes and pornography forming a puddle on our collective tables.
So thanks for the memories Facebook, but it looks like you can keep them.