Most people’s knowledge of their parents’ lives before they were born is pretty sketchy. Human memory is inherently poor at remembering many of the things that happened over, say, 20 years. There are also things we don’t want to remember and things that get recalled but not quite in the way they happened, memory is reconstructive (see below for some classic psychology papers on memory). So today children don’t have much to go on, a handful of photos or anecdotes from the parents or maybe a longtime friend.
Use of social technologies such as email, text messaging and social websites, such as Facebook is increasingly pervasive; for those growing up with it in particular it tracks and documents with an accuracy and level of detail never seen before and there is little digital decay. Everything you’ve bought online, things you’ve commented on, places or events you’ve been to, people you’ve been with, all your relationship status’ have been logged. If this information is retained and is accessible over time our children will have access to a source of primary information about us that would leave a historian salivating.
Of course, people can delete this history and who knows what course these technologies will take in coming decades. But I bet that people will keep it and that it will be accessible – in fact I think its accessibility will vastly increase. It will become much more structured and we will have far more control over how it can be manipulated in order to extract trends, signals and meaning from (please excuse my use of Google Analytics style language). Further, I don’t think people will delete it. Remember when your grandparents died and you or your parents were left with all the photos and maybe other documents/letters that were a record of their lives, part of your family history? I think our trails left on social technologies will become the modern replacement of that.
How will this be managed, do we leave our passwords in our will? Or in what way this is left – lock stock, or in some edited form has yet to have established social norms but certainly these will evolve and debates have already begun, although as is often the case lagging behind the pace of change.
Some great articles on memory
Trivers, R (2000). The Elements of a Scientific Theory of Self-Deception, Annals New York Academy of Sciences, 114-131.
Schacter D.L. (1989). Memory. In Foundations of Cognitive Science, ed. MI Posner, 683–725. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Bartlett, F.C. (1920). Some Experiments on the Reproduction of Folk-Stories. Folklore, 31, 30-47.