Many a meme or social media post expresses the great relief of cultural elders who came of age before the internet. Those who smile and are quick to agree may not realize the burden that digital culture has created for so-called digital natives. According to culture and media critic Kate Eichhorn in The End of Forgetting, growing up with social media means history, if you will, is never dead.
In the introduction, Eichhorn points to a general anxiety that the digital age, in which young people have access to an endless array of media targeted at more adult audiences, decrees the end of childhood. For generations, a person’s memory of their childhood has been shaped by the photo albums and home videos that parents create, along with the school projects and ephemera that get boxed up as keepsakes. These pictorial histories typically remain private, making it possible to leave the past behind and to even destroy the evidence, should you make that choice.
When those stories become broadly shared social media artifacts, forgetting your mistakes is rendered impossible: we cannot leave the past behind. Eichhorn notes: “What today’s youth will carry forward into the future, then, is not simply an archive of digital images and video clips but an entire social context that they may or may not wish to retain.”
The digital age has brought on a striking, and not broadly recognized, transformation in the experience of being a child or teenager: for the first time, young people have the technology and capacity to construct and represent their own lives. Eichhorn offers an engaging history of the relationship between photography and childhood, focusing initially on the Kodak Brownie camera that was designed for and marketed to children. First launched in 1900, the Brownie served two purposes: it made photography popular with both children and adults, and it created a means for documenting childhood. Having film developed required the intervention of an adult, meaning that while children could document their experiences, they could not do so privately.
With this in mind, the appeal of the Polaroid Instamatic, with its self-developing film, becomes even more apparent. The Polaroid photograph is made and can be circulated immediately, much as is the case with cell phone camera photos, yet Eichhorn points out that Polaroid photos were thought of as ephemeral and disposable, where photos on social media are rendered permanent.
Moving forward to how we document childhood and adolescence in the era of social media, Eichhorn offers some staggering statistics: worldwide, 80 billion photographs were shot in 2000. By 2015, more than three trillion photos were made, and 75 percent of them were produced using digital phones. This proliferation of digital images represents ways that children and teens are crafting their public identities, but it also means that a person may be unwittingly affiliated with a group or event to which they do not feel connected. For example, if you are walking in a city where a protest is underway, you may be photographed and automatically tagged in an image from the event, even though you were a disinterested passerby.
You may also feel disconnected from your self-presentation in the past: the styles, brands, friends, or pastimes that occupied you at ages eight or 13 are not necessarily going to resonate with how you see yourself at 19 or 24. Eichhorn’s exploration of these concepts, coupled with support from cultural theorists from Nietzche to Freud, present a powerful argument in favor of being able to forget our own personal pasts. These former selves “may outlive their welcome and interfere with the ability to get on with one’s emerging adult life.”
“We appear to be hardwired to distort and conceal the most intolerable memories of childhood. But we are now living in a world where this protective impulse is increasingly threatened by the screens upon which so much of our lives and early development unfold.”
The story of Ghyslain Raza is a poignant example of the end of forgetting. You may not know his name, but you may be familiar with the Star Wars Kid. In 2002, 15-year-old Raza shot video of himself awkwardly wielding a golf club as if it were a light saber and pretending to be a Star Wars character. Raza’s classmates found the video and uploaded it to the internet. As an accidental internet sensation, he experienced tremendous bullying and ridicule, eventually ending up in a psychiatric ward. Eichhorn treats Raza’s story with both tenderness and caution and goes on to explore other instances in which young people have been humiliated online, including devastating instances of sexual assault and revenge porn that have led to suicide.
Central to Eichhorn’s argument is the work of Sherry Turkle, who has written extensively about the intersection of social psychology and technology. Turkle is among theorists who see adolescence as a time to try out different aspects of identity and to explore alternative selves. She draws on psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s idea of calling for a psychosocial moratorium between childhood and adulthood, during which a young person can sample experience in the world without lasting consequence. Although Turkle saw the internet as a space in which such self-discovery can be explored, Eichhorn argues that those spaces are rapidly shrinking.
In light of college admissions staff and hiring officers searching social media to learn more about applicants, teenagers see danger in not being granted a psychosocial moratorium when social media posts appear without context or opportunities for explanation. The end of forgetting, then, may lead to people limiting their experiences for fear of being misidentified or misunderstood.
Eichhorn’s work needs to be included in public discourse about how we make meaning of self and others in digital spaces. We are still in the midst of making sense of the impact of social media on how we record our lives and, by so doing, how we unavoidably carry our digital history forward. The End of Forgetting reminds readers that sampling experiences and trying out different personalities, sometimes in error, is part of the human condition. The degree to which we should forgive others, or hold them responsible, remains a pressing but unacknowledged ethical concern.