The process of cultural forgetting
July 28, 2020 7:12 AM   Subscribe

How memory starts out as an oral process, and then goes into stable records, and mostly fades. "The report, “The universal decay of collective memory and attention,” concludes that people and things are kept alive through “oral communication” from about five to 30 years. They then pass into written and online records, where they experience a slower, longer decline. The paper argues that people and things that make the rounds at the water cooler have a higher probability of settling into physical records. “Changes in communication technologies, such as the rise of the printing press, radio and television,” it says, affect our degree of attention, and all of our cultural products, from songs to scientific papers, “follow a universal decay function.”

Hidalgo is among the premier data miners of the world’s collective history. With his MIT colleagues, he developed Pantheon, a dataset that ranks historical figures by popularity from 4000 B.C. to 2010. Aristotle and Plato snag the top spots. Jesus is third. It’s a highly addictive platform that allows you to search people, places, and occupations with a variety of parameters. Most famous tennis player of all time? That’s right, Frenchman Rene Lacoste, born in 1904. (Roger Federer places 20th.) Rankings are drawn from, essentially, Wikipedia biographies, notably ones in more than 25 different languages, and Wikipedia page views.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz (23 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
That was a good read, but I’m sceptical that specific media have innate entropies, given the wildly context-dependent performance of the various error correction mechanisms that humans have developed, such as libraries and priesthoods. The argument reminds me of a marvellously utopian paper published by an unknown member of the Royal Society in 1699 containing a mathematical formula for comparing the credibility of oral and written testimonies. The author reckoned that writing 'would not lose its certainty' for 7000 years. Oral tradition was 'subject to much casuality’ and would become unreliable ‘within two decades.'
posted by GeorgeBickham at 8:02 AM on July 28 [7 favorites]


It's interesting though that cultural survival happens, despite this idea of decay and despite forcible attempts to kill culture. I've been personal witness to this in both the Irish and African diasporas. As someone with folklore training, I completely reject the idea that the home of cultural memory is in records - though if your job is to data-mine, work with and search records, then the notion that memory is found in records is the bias you're going to have. I think these folks could stand to study oral and embodied traditions more deeply.
posted by Miko at 8:45 AM on July 28 [9 favorites]


Changes in communication technologies, such as the rise of the printing press, radio and television,” it says, affect our degree of attention, and all of our cultural products, from songs to scientific papers, “follow a universal decay function.”

Thus the age of instant history.
posted by clavdivs at 8:48 AM on July 28


I've quit kidding myself, about circling the drain.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:49 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


"The decay is also becoming faster over the years, signaling that nowadays papers are forgotten more quickly. However, when time is counted in terms of the number of published papers, the rate of decay of citations is fairly independent of the period considered. This indicates that the attention of scholars depends on the number of published items, and not on real time." arxiv.org/abs/1503.01881
posted by bdc34 at 8:55 AM on July 28 [2 favorites]


Memory is distributed. Oral histories, by definition, have to be actively maintained, while written histories can be filed away and forgotten. Religious tomes are codified cultural memories that remain active at all times. And of course the way in which memory is recorded and transmitted depends largely on the specific society and available infrastructure and institutions.

I am skeptical about this study relying entirely on Wikipedia, which has to be an extremely biased and woefully incomplete source of information.
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:08 AM on July 28 [5 favorites]


grumpybear69, I somewhat agree, but how many different wikipedia pages in various languages a subject appears in probably says something about how widespread interest is.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 9:36 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I'd say, though, that Wikipedia entries - prevalence thereof - reflects a lot of biases, and also benefits from weird effects of scale - when something appears on the internet and gets amplified.

I would wholeheartedly not say that a snapshot of Wikipedia taken today is a perfect reflection of global culture as it is lived today. Far from it.
posted by Miko at 9:54 AM on July 28 [5 favorites]


interesting. I'm going from memory. The other night I watched a short film on 'Dust'.
man and woman on bridge, he's got like multiple screens and just 'going to town'. She takes out a Polaroid and snaps a picture, which says a thousand words, then, later, all digital data is wiped and he's alone in the last shot with no devices but the picture.
Is that accurate? haven't googled it.

"Perhaps none is more powerful than memory of childhoods day. It enables us to formed an idea of the blessiedness of innosense by recolling to our minds the time when our thoughts were guiltless and our hearts understand...The future blessing to ourselves and thoes loved that surround us forever a blank. The third era comes higher and holier duties in life to be assured...I know my letters are not very interesting as they sound to others as they do to me."

-Betsy Kelly, letter to Garrison Moore. Lyons Michigan, April, 19, 1867.

I disagree great-great grandmother, I think your letters are interesting. this is her grave
I agree about oral tradition in this article. my mother, sister and I are the last to hold memories directly told to us. they go back almost 200 years. collating them is hard. For example, a newspaper article I found reads that my aunt Delusias place on Hickham was strifed by the Japanese at pearl harbor as the story is told. But no Delusha shows up in the family line. well, using census, letters, a family tree, and a few questions to mom, Delusha is a nick for Margaret. my mom didn't know that but knew her.
sorry if off topic but nice post.
posted by clavdivs at 10:41 AM on July 28 [3 favorites]


Sounds like they're simply talking about information overload on a societal historical level.
posted by polymodus at 10:43 AM on July 28


The Half Life of Facts - Why Everything We know has an Expiration Date.

....is a good book on the same ideas. One particularly fascinating aspect is that there are certain scientific ideas which were discovered, forgotten and then re-discovered. Also talks about the half-life of medical treatments and how long it takes for bad/ineffective treatments to become obsolete practice.
posted by storybored at 12:48 PM on July 28


it seems like Wikipedia as a primary source would bias towards the kinds of things the kinds of people who work on Wikipedia (predominantly white, male, and North American/European) are interested in and are willing to play rules-arbiter over - so we end up with a lot of detail on the Marvel/DC pantheons and a huge variety of television shows and not as much relatively speaking for women, Black people, indigenous people, latinx people, etc who lived lives and changed worlds - the same kind of garbage-in/garbage-out that biases machine learning towards the same racism/sexism that infects the culture that created the training materials
posted by kokaku at 3:30 PM on July 28 [7 favorites]


It's a curious commonality in many cultures that their founding, sacred documents are extensive oral texts that were among the first things committed to writing in that culture. The Homeric poems, the Vedas, the Book of Songs, the Book of Documents, the Hebrew and Greek Testaments, and so on. Somehow the interface of mnemonics developed for human memorizing and recitation with the technologies of writing produced something with unequalled authority in each case. But in the seventeenth century, as GeorgeBickham observes above, the reliability of oral tradition becomes a much-discussed problem, probably because of an intersection of secularization, standardization of national languages, insistence on repeatability of experiments, and emergent ideas of literary property. One book about the process can be examined here.
posted by homerica at 4:20 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


It does coincide with musical notation.

"The seeds of what would eventually become modern western notation were sown in medieval Europe, starting with the Catholic Church's goal for ecclesiastical uniformity. The church began notating plainchant melodies so that the same chants could be used throughout the church"
posted by clavdivs at 4:39 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


There's entropy, but there's also the reverse process by which people make and remake memory over and over again as a collective process—as folklore, like Miko said, but in the modern era of nations, also as popular culture, and cultural heritage, and commodity. Raphael Samuel's Theatres of Memory is exactly about this growing and important obsession our societies have with the past as heritage, as nostalgia, as retro, as symbols. Preservation and common re-remembering is a centrally important part of how our culture interprets the present. It's very odd that someone could conceive of an American culture in which forgetting obeys iron laws of decay, and not notice the simultaneous central importance of memory and the past on American (and universal, modern) popular culture. Perhaps American teenagers can't recognise Lennon singing Imagine, but I'll bet they understand what it means when someone whistles Dixie.
When we started to think about decay, we realized we could take two concepts from anthropology—“communicative memory” and “cultural memory.”...
The cultural historians are right here, dude.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:57 PM on July 28 [5 favorites]


yeah, as
Maurois said:
"Memory is a great artist. For every man and for every woman it makes the recollection of his or her life a work of art and an unfaithful record...
posted by clavdivs at 7:40 PM on July 28


Honestly, oral histories have a better track record than anything written histories have managed to preserve. We have records, via oral history, of events that predate the invention of writing.

Written records can preserve a lot more detail. They can be rediscovered even if the chain of reproduction is broken, to an extent which depends on the medium and local conditions. But they've yet to match oral history for the sheer depth of history.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 11:14 PM on July 28


Interesting response to the question of whether the U.S. has lost its cultural center because there's no John Lennon who's a touchstone for everyone:

Is that a collective memory phenomena or is it because nowadays the guys in the middle of the culture are different guys? Different people come into the center of culture because of the type of mediums that are available. There have been musicians for thousands of years, and for most of that history, musicians have not been wealthy. It was only when there was a medium that allowed them to sell their music—vinyl, magnetic tapes, and discs—that they were able to make money. I think that generated a golden era of pop music in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. And that’s associative to a communication technology that was dominant at that time. Radio and discs were a way to distribute those popular idols’ musical performances. When that technology was replaced by simple forms of copying, like the ability to copy files on the Internet, all that went away.
posted by little onion at 6:00 AM on July 29


Paging Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan to the blue courtesy phone, please
posted by thecaddy at 9:40 AM on July 29 [1 favorite]


Honestly, oral histories have a better track record than anything written histories have managed to preserve. We have records, via oral history, of events that predate the invention of writing.

Written records can preserve a lot more detail. They can be rediscovered even if the chain of reproduction is broken, to an extent which depends on the medium and local conditions. But they've yet to match oral history for the sheer depth of history.


That's only true for oral histories for cultures which do not have written histories, where oral history is a formal discipline. When talking about oral memory within cultures which have written histories (and no formal oral history discipline), oral memory is often very short-sighted. I've observed that they tend to reach only about 80-100 years back (to grand-parents or grear-grandparents), and even then were increasingly inaccurate compared to what the contemporary written documents revealed. (I'm not actually talking about written histories, but rather things like administrative and legal documents describing their "now").

Oral histories from oral cultures are also really different from the kind of history that is written from contemporary written sources. They aren't more or less "true", but they have completely different purposes. They aren't going to record something like what tax rates were, or the average age of marriage or levels of inter-regional trade. Their sense of time is more fluid and flexible - they will reach really, really far back into the past. But exactly how far - whether 1000, 5000 or 10,000 years - is often estimated based on other sources (e.g. archaeology).

Robert Harm's Games Against Nature marries the use of oral history with contemporary academic history. It demonstrates some of the real strengths, but also limitations, of oral histories.
posted by jb at 11:13 AM on July 29 [3 favorites]


kokaku: "it seems like Wikipedia as a primary source would bias towards the kinds of things the kinds of people who work on Wikipedia (predominantly white, male, and North American/European) are interested in and are willing to play rules-arbiter over - so we end up with a lot of detail on the Marvel/DC pantheons and a huge variety of television shows and not as much relatively speaking for women, Black people, indigenous people, latinx people, etc who lived lives and changed worlds - the same kind of garbage-in/garbage-out that biases machine learning towards the same racism/sexism that infects the culture that created the training materials"

FWIW they do try to correct for this:
HPI is currently made of five components: the “age” of a biography’s character (e.g. Jesus is more than 2,000 years old), number of Wikipedia language editions in which the biography has a presence (L), the concentration of the pageviews received by a biography across languages (L*), the stability of pageviews over time (CV), and the number of non-English pageviews received by that biography. We find that combining these metrics provides a more sensible ranking than using these metrics alone. To validate HPI, we previously showed that it correlates better with accomplishments than single metrics, when we focus on activities where individual accomplishments are measurable (e.g. Chess, Olympic Swimming, Tennis, Formula One).

While being an ad-hoc metric, HPI also attempts to correct for the internet’s English bias. By using non-English page views, and giving a premium to biographies that have a presence in multiple languages, and whose pageviews are not concentrated in only a few of them, HPI tries to move away from a ranking dominated by English pageviews.
posted by Rhaomi at 9:55 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]


hidalgo's Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order from Atoms to Economies[1] is a nice, quick read that (i guess!) kind of gets at the underpinnings[2,3,4] of collective knowledge -- 'personbytes' -- and cultural forgetting :P
posted by kliuless at 12:24 AM on July 30


The matter of cultural transmission and decay is fascinating, because our engagement with the past happens exclusively in the present. Writing and drawing (such amazing ideas themselves) extend the presence of an idea or image in time, but not the fact that its meaning inexorably shifts over time, as referents change and the patina of age accumulates. Our view of the past is not something that gets handed down to us, but something we continually create and re-create in the present. When we find a clay tablet with inventory records, its past meaning as an accounting instrument is subsumed under its present meaning as an archaeological discovery. Thus the past changes constantly towards the present. From that point of view there's an acute vibrancy to oral transmission over written records; perhaps you could say that we speak/sing to re-live, whereas we write to (be able to) forget.
posted by dmh at 3:07 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]


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