Law in the Internet Society

On Memory Loss

By MartaPanella - 9 January 2022


There is a moment in life when you stop to consider who you are and what makes yourself different from the other seven billion inhabitants of the Earth. Some people call it personality, others soul, something incredibly special in its distinctiveness, a combination of genetics, teachings, people encountered and personal learning. Barring the effects of genetics, if we combine all these elements, we are the results of what we went through and of the memories we carry.

What happens then if we renounce to those memories by entrusting them to someone else? Does the freed brain capacity make up for the loss of information? My paper tries to explore these questions, also in light of the possible impacts on society as a whole.

Digital Amnesia

The basic assumption behind evolutionary theories is that humans progressively lose non-fundamental abilities, acquiring different skills to respond to new needs created by the surrounding environment.

Nowadays, new technologies and highly-sophisticated storage mechanisms allow people to constantly rely on outside sources of information, like external hard disks storing a backup of their brains.

Similarly, the brains themselves become assimilable to a RAM memory and by saving information somewhere else, we clear space for new data. However, since the hardware is not within our brains, we essentially "give up" the information, forgetting it in the certainty that we can easily retrieve it, just by typing some words on our keyboards.

This tendency to forget information easily available online has been defined as "Google effect" or "digital amnesia" by psychological studies concluding that people are less likely to remember data if they are confident to be able to retrieve or access online.

The Google effect is named after the search engine where people look for information. However, people also rely on Instagram to store their pictures, Facebook and Whatsapp to remember their friends' birthdays and numbers. However convenient this might sound, we are allowing ourselves to forget things we would not normally want to forget and that amounted together create a sufficiently accurate representation of who we are.

It is then only natural to question what remains in our brains when we have given up so much information, confident in the fact that it is going to be stored safely for us somewhere else. Studies on the Google effect report that even if we are losing cognitive functions where memory is concerned, we are gaining abilities in information retrieval. Subconsciously, this only increments our reliance on our hard disks, we believe that the information we look for is there, true objective and unaltered.

The effects on society

The individual relationship with the net heavily affects also society as a whole. Studies have found that people tend to rely on familiar information and will probably consider true any news they find frequently online.

Data analysis and profiling allow providers to promptly deliver any information we might be looking for, sometimes even without us asking. The persistent availability of content consistent with our expectations eventually reinforces our opinions and convinces us that any dissenting side either does not exist or is unreasonable; in the end, we lose perception of the nuances and each debate is polarized, particularly the moral ones.

If social medias are showing us a world constantly agreeing with us and we can just stop following anyone who disagrees, we start assuming that everything should be in line with our current sensibilities, until these feelings become so pervasive that we feel the need to take action, resorting to some form of personal vengeance and “canceling” what we don’t like, even history. In a modern interpretation of a damnatio memoriae, we rely on the idea that what is not online does not exist and end up forgetting that what happened in the past is part of who we are.

A different path?

Overall, the true challenge relies on whether there is an alternative way to shape our relationship with the net and the ultimate impact it has on our memories, both for ourselves and for future generations. The only possible solution would be to engage in a more proactive way with the net. We would need active technologies, enabling us to evolve from being passive subjects to whom information is delivered through attention-seeking notifications to active users of platforms.

In this perspective, technologies should become a support mechanism to help the human brain in those tasks it cannot face on its own, without supplementing it and taking over the existing functionalities. This could be achieved through the personal effort of individuals, combined with the diffusion of technologies that should function more like a library than a political rally. In this respect, it would be important to allow the personalization of the user's experience (by the user and respecting her privacy), so that it targets her actual needs and doesn't constitute a "fit all and invade every aspect of life" mechanism. This would heighten people's ability to have a more critical approach to what they receive from their online experience and, together with enhanced systems of comparison among different views, this could eventually ameliorate our critical thinking and ultimately lower the polarization of the debate within society as a whole.

Assuming that a cerebral transformation has already occurred, these steps should have already been taken some years ago to avoid and prevent permanent effects on humanity as a whole; however, if there still is a possibility to reshape our relationship with the net, we need to remember the power of our brains and take an active role in our activities online.


Santayana wrote "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". The value of our memories is mainly in the effect they have on our present. If we lose that connection, we are losing an incredibly valuable learning experience, for ourselves and for future generations. Ultimately, we might simply want to avoid a future one-dollar bill to cite "In Google we trust".


Webs Webs

r4 - 12 Jan 2022 - 23:01:18 - MartaPanella
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