Feeling forgetful? It’s because of, um, er, now where was I?

Contemporary technologies detach us from the past and addict us to the future

Human beings have forgotten things for as long as there’s been recorded history. Well, so far as any one can remember.

King Alfred, on the Somerset Levels, forgot those cakes; Cuchulain and Emer were both given a drink of forgetfulness; the ancient Greeks thought that one of the five rivers that had to be crossed after death on the journey to the underworld was Lethe. That is the river of forgetfulness. Crossing it blotted out all memory of one’s former, earthly life.

Forgetting is hardly a new human phenomenon. Yet we’re now living in a world peculiarly absorbed with, and productive of, it. Lethe has broken its banks and flooded the technological, futures-driven present.

And the consequences, in profound and multiple ways, require us to live unmoored from history.


One of the important messages of the French Revolution was that human beings, of their own volition, could break from the past

There are many causes of this modern forgetfulness. Some lie in great political events that shaped Europe in the last two centuries. One of the important messages of the French Revolution, for instance, was that human beings, of their own volition, could break from the past. People could transform what had been, in terms of the governance of the state, previously believed to be unchangeable. The revolution was a significant moment in persuading men and women that history did not bind them.

In the years that followed Napoleon’s defeat, new developments, not least in technology, increased a tendency, even in daily life, to look ahead to the new rather than behind to the past; to aspire rather than to remember.

Take travel. A quintessential document of modernity in the 19th century is the railway timetable. The timetables were, as they still are, forwards-facing, casting the immediate past as redundant. No one looks at a timetable to see which trains they’ve missed. They look to see which they can catch next. Railways stations – and, for us, airports and even car parks – are uniquely places of passage. They are to be entered or left. When we are in them, we are always on the way out. These modern locations encourage our futures-thinking, our sense that what matters is not what has happened but what’s yet to come.

Contemporary communications technologies, often derived from 19th-century inventions, help us break from pasts, too. And that is even in ordinary working days. Checking phones or tablets for the next message, the latest tweet, a new Skype meeting request, the email we’re waiting for, has become for us the new fidgety, anticipatory normality. These devices, and the systems and knowledge to which they give us access, addict us to the (short-term) future. And ‘addict’ is not a ill-chosen word. Such technologies underline for us that even the most recent past is out-of-date, and might as well be forgotten.

Such devices more directly immerse us in mundane, quotidian forgetting, too. That is because they literally expose us to our impaired powers of memory. We can’t always remember how to work this technology. The access codes, the answers to security questions, the passwords that we daily need to function, the PINs: they slip from recall, lying on the floors of our mind, as the Irish-American poet the late Michael Donaghy would say, like dying guppies. And often enough, when we do remember these things, the protocols change again and we’re obliged to forget what we’d previously thought necessary to remember and start again.

There’s self-forgetting too, amid these technologies. That’s because the experience of sitting in front of a computer increasingly makes us feel owned by someone else’s mind. When I’m accessing my bank account, a supermarket delivery service, or an insurer, I sense peculiarly that I’m in the hands of others. If I’ve a specific question to ask, or personal point to make to a company, I can only make it in accordance with the choices available to me on screen. An airline website asked me, for instance, as I was booking a ticket earlier this year, whether my journey was for leisure or business. There was no box to record that I was travelling to my father’s funeral. Such systems, such limitations, put one in the hands of others’ priorities and limits. They make us set aside, as if forgotten, our own lives and needs.

Busyness is a condition of modern urban living. And being busy fertilises forgetting. Remembering what we need to do in each day – both at home and work – has become increasingly complex. And even the journey to and from work – the commute – has taught us how to live with forgotten time. The commute is transitional, a period to forget, barely differentiated from one day to another. Here’s another subtle influence in shaping the modern working person’s amnesiac relationship with time.

The contemporary workplace is run through with the vocabulary of futures. And, in turn, it’s full of pasts that are negative. The required vocabulary in the office or the board room is one of anticipation: growth, innovation, entrepreneurs, maximisation, development. The life of labour is, similarly, populated with plans. Financial plans, strategic plans, economic recovery plans, personal development plans. These are all forms of prophecy – attempts to make the future stand and deliver. Such practices of contemporary work require knowledge of the past only in order to track how much tomorrow could exceed it.

Much of contemporary life persuades us to become detached from yesterday, let alone from more distant pasts. We’re continually being required, in the busy, forgetful regimes and routines of modern living, to lose the recollection habit. We’re citizens of Lethe, drinkers of the waters of forgetfulness.

So what are the consequences of being so persistently enticed to forget? Few people don't know, medically, what living without a memory looks like. Dementia discloses that to us all. But what, at a more general level, could forgetting be doing to communities? What's the personal and collective damage – to psyches, to culture and politics – of living without much history? What might the metaphorical dementia of modernity be doing to who we are?
Francis O'Gorman's new book Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia is published by Bloomsbury