A Deep Dive Down the Memory Hole
From one emergency to the next, battle lines are now being drawn over who remembers what.
Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Mass Affect: War and the Global Synchronisation of Emotions by. Building off the work of cultural theorists Paul Virilio, Byung-Chul Han, and others, the essay unpacks the internet’s hypnotizing ability to synchronize mass emotions. In the past few years, this online feeling has become especially generalized and potent (and often exhausting), as we move from one seemingly unprecedented emergency to the next.
The ability of emotional rhythms to permeate through a crowd as one entity has been well-documented. Synchronized emotions make many minds “tick together.”1 Linked to our primordial brain, this is frequently what made the holy, religious experience possible.2 It instinctually excites us, separating the ‘event’ from the mundane every day. Writing in 1912, sociologist Émile Durkheim called it collective effervescence. Throughout the 20th century, it was a feeling so often tapped into by mass politics.
Emotional synchronicity online, however, is not the same as the experience of an excited, physical crowd. For one, it is disembodied. Actual memory-making, on the other hand, is closely tied to physical space.3 “Where were you when X happened?” But aside from being disembodied, the online is also defined by its speed which really took off during the 2010s. In 2013, IBM calculated that 90% of all data was produced in the last 2 years, and the parabolic rise has continued since unabated.4 But the most obvious example of speed online is the shortening of content, an undeniable trend amid attention growing ever-scarcer. The 15-second video form made famous by Tiktok now has Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube successfully copying it to stay competitive in the attention economy.5
It is these two attributes—disembodiment and speed—that make the internet so disorienting. Induced forgetfulness at a dizzyingly fast pace: as one top-voted poster on Reddit’s fast-growing r/nosurf subreddit succinctly said, “the internet finally broke my fucking mind.”
In the past few months, much has been written eulogizing what the internet has become. The internet is already over byand The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is (2022) by come to mind. Ian Bogost argued similarly in The Atlantic in a recent piece titled The Age of Social Media Is Ending. While I sympathize with these critical sentiments, that’s not what I really want to talk about. To bring it back to my opening, the synchronization of emotions online is especially manipulative given our circumstances. This is largely thanks to its other half: the memory hole.
For it is one thing to excite the public over a cause, but it becomes more insidious when forgetfulness is induced from one event to the next.
Down the Memory Hole, We Go
But First, A Brief History
As you may already know, the term “memory hole” was coined in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. It was imagined to be a physical chute where government officials would dump documents down to an incinerator, never to be seen again. The protagonist in the story is tasked with memory-holing such documents and discarding any deviations from the party line. Ever since, the term has become synonymous with the disappearance of information more generally.
Nowadays, there’s a common understanding that ‘whatever is on the internet is forever,’ so be careful what you say because nothing can truly be deleted. But in truth, the internet is actually a very ephemeral place. If we take just one example, broken links, they have become more endemic over time. Even on authoritative websites like the New York Times, some 75% of links from 1998 articles are essentially dead. The always-changing social media sphere presents an added problem, like when virtually everything on MySpace’s 12-year history just disappeared. The further back you go in internet time, the more the memory hole widens.
(11/29/22 edit: speaking of broken links and lost files, I was sad to find out that as of November 2022, 99.9% of the 10 million documents on Wikileaks’ own website has disappeared)
Discussions on how to best prevent info loss were present from the internet's beginnings. A depreciated website, an edited URL, an ‘updated’ article — without checks, it’s far too easy to remove what’s been put out there. Some of the early human-led indexers, like the Open Directory Project (DMOZ), became embroiled in controversy because entities like CNN were given preferential editing treatment and others “paid” to get certain articles included.6 During the mid-1990s, two bulwarks against the memory hole went online: the Internet Archive, launched in 1996, and its sister project, the Wayback Machine. The Wayback Machine today saves hundreds of millions of pages daily, so they can never be deleted.7
It was only during the Bush years that the memory hole concept became politically charged for the first time against a regime proper.8 In 2002, activist Russ Kirk launched the website The Memory Hole which focused on information that was likely to be scrubbed, such as government files, corporate documents, police reports, and the like. One of his archived videos has since been etched in internet history, the classroom footage of George W. Bush being told that the Twin Towers had been hit.9 Other info Kirk saved from the memory hole include deleted pictures of caskets from the Iraq War; the detrimental side effects of diet aids removed from the Food and Drug Administration website; past statements from officials saying Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction; a censored Justice Department memo on internal diversity; and a vast number of documents and audio recordings intended for 'media only' and/or state officials after 9/11.10 11 12 Just to provide some perspective, the leaked report from the Justice Department alone was downloaded some 340,000 times by November, 2003.13
The Memory Hole ultimately inspired a whole host of related media that I need not recount here. They include the likes of WikiLeaks, FAIR, and others. It was an old-school style of muckraking journalism that was noble in its aims. By 2009, however, Kirk’s project was no more as it was hacked and then sent offline.14 Its demise marks something like an end of an era. As the internet morphed from being the rowdy backyard of traditional mass media to its contemporary omnipresent form, Kirk’s own endeavors largely succumbed to the memory hole. It relaunched in 2016 to comparatively little interest.
Between those years, the internet landscape drastically changed. With the 2010s mass adoption of social media and the smartphone, today’s familiar synchronization of emotions online took shape. The memory hole concept no longer applied to just nefarious actors trying to scrub documents. Instead, memory-holing embedded itself in the infosphere and its relentless growth. This new form was more amenable to the social and political management of society, albeit mostly unconscious and undirected.
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The Web As We Know It Takes Root (the 2010s)
One of the first moments of emotional synchronicity I clearly remember online was the Kony 2012 fiasco. At the time, it shattered records to become the quickest-ever video to go viral, amassing some 100 million views in just a week. I was in high school then and they made it mandatory viewing. Its fall, however, came as fast as its rise. The founder was spotted raving like a madman naked and pounding his fists on the street. Everyone just pretended it didn’t happen afterward. That was my first real introduction to the ephemeral aspect of emotional virality online.
As the 2010s rolled on, the power of canceling took center stage with the ‘digging up’ of old dirt. Amid growing mass internet adoption, it was time to put the “internet is forever” theory to the test. One’s 15-minutes of fame was born and died on the callout as the grift picked up. I still remember the then-obscure Twitter user Suey Park becoming famous for leading a hashtag campaign to #cancelcolbert. It’s as if the first impetus of the emergent internet hivemind was to quash the memory hole by digging up every possible detail of the famous. It was probably one of the first ‘terminally online’ phenomena.
However, as social media engagement declined and more people relegated themselves to being merely consumers of mostly video content, the grassroots ‘cancel’ was largely taken up by professional journalists.15 Callout think pieces from peripheral websites, usually circulated on Facebook, started to lose their clicks. The move toward short-form consumption meant that forgetting became more endemic, because at least online engagement produces some memory.
Frustrations Arise as Online Trends Deepen
Some of the first bouts of collective frustration over the memory hole came about during the mid-2010s and its mass shootings. The canned responses to tragedies were criticized as being a "carefully planned ritual." Pundits raged at the public for forgetting: 'do we really have to do this again?' By the end of the decade, the discussion increasingly became a meta one over each tragedy's staying power in the media cycle, subject to many analyses and reports. It was accepted that collective amnesia was paralyzing any proper response.
In some ways, the memory-holing of tragedies runs counter to expectations. Traumatic shocks are some of the most likely to be remembered. One of my own earliest shock memories on mass media was seeing videos of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami on CNN.
Yet, collective attention has declined, and so has the memory-forming power of the image and video. In a 2022 study, researchers at the University of Washington concluded that the scroll produced something like a “dissociative state.” On average, browsing one new short-form video led to a scroll lasting over 40 minutes.16 “I don’t even remember what I watched" is a common complaint. In a similar vein, much has been written on the internet’s sense of time: its ability to dehistoricize and produce a feeling of an ‘extended present.’ In Present Shock (2013), Douglas Rushkoff links the collapse of long meta-narratives to there being no attention for them.17 Online consumption begets recency bias as a way of existing.
With these trends deepening, their consequences have reached something of a fever pitch in the past few years. Amid the lockdowns and what followed, many began even to lose their sense of time. “The past two years has been one big blur,” wrote The Washington Post in early 2022. “The pandemic has taken away what scientists call our temporal anchors,” reads another piece on PBS. Unsurprisingly, it is after 2020 that the memory hole discourse really began to flourish, with accusations flying of malicious forgetting.
The Memory Hole Becomes a Battle Line (2020—)
After the Taliban took over all of Afghanistan with dazzling speed in the summer of 2021, fingers were immediately being pointed along partisan lines. Although happening under Biden, many tried to tie it back to the previous administration. “Trump can’t memory hole this,” wrote Rep. Adam Kissinger (R). CNN Anchor Jake Tapper likewise told his listeners, “there is this attempt to memory hole the last four years.” The RNC was also accused of deleting pages on its website that celebrated President Trump’s deal with the Taliban. But Biden was also not spared. He, too, was being accused of memory-holing statements by claiming the mission was “actually never about nation-building” when it was.
This might sound like standard partisan fare, but it is really just one example of the changing discourse. In a world of constant emergency, the gravest charge is levied against those who wish to bury its seriousness. Every shock produces a new need to mobilize. But in doing so, past episodes are lost to the memory hole, only to be resurrected as damning accusations. From these accusations, battle lines are drawn.
Memory hole discourse has thus permeated into virtually every emergency of the past three years. Hostile accusations were abound when The Atlantic writer Emily Oster declared, “let’s create a pandemic amnesty” because “we didn’t know” what to do then. Pandemic relief funds disappeared and were allegedly forgotten about. The lab leak theory went from being a complete conspiracy to possibly true. The shock of the pandemic consequently created an unprecedented alter-media ecosystem online, which accused the commentariat of trying to bury what had ‘really happened.’
At the same time, a similar schism was being pushed by the liberal mainstream who claimed that January 6th was being “memory-holed.” The U.S. House Select Committee made sure to broadcast the investigative hearings live on primetime for maximum effect. Joyce Reid opened her MSNBC program earlier this year with the line, “Republicans as a party now officially trying to memory-hole the truth.” MSNBC ran the same angle on multiple other programs. A recent study in the journal Memory concluded that entirely different recollections of January 6th were forming, as if living in two different worlds.
The long list of ‘emergencies’ in the past three years is long, but the piercing question afterwards is always, “do you remember?” Bringing up a forgotten event has now become a political statement, as if indicating where one’s allegiances lie. The sheer number of emergencies has caused Google to sometimes tag searches on breaking topics with the qualifier, “it looks like these results are changing quickly” and to wait for more “reliable sources.”
Even a major war cannot escape the infosphere’s capricious attention deficit. Of course, by this I mean the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War. After the first 100 days, "the world [is looking] elsewhere” wrote Axios worryingly in June, 2022. The Columbia Journalism Review called it a problem of “compassion fatigue,” as if views and the intensity of media coverage correlates with ‘compassion.’ Since information has been reduced to a single competing level, the spectacle is becoming a stand-in for the public itself. This is why one of Ukraine’s key wartime strategies is to make sure it does not become “normalized.” Its outsized focus on this front has arguably been unprecedented. It is an acknowledgment that to normalize an event is to banish and lose it to the memory hole. The Ukrainian state believes such a fate could quickly cost it future funding and armaments, and potentially even create an opening for doubts.
The shortening of media cycles over the past few decades is nothing new. Mass media does what it always has done. The newly-added element is the speed of the infosphere, whose conduit is emotion itself. Cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han has written much on the fact that more and more information is not a substitute for meaningful narration. Such conditions cause narrational collapse for “the more we are confronted with information, the more our suspicion grows.”18 Consequently, trust across all major U.S. institutions hit an all-time low this year. And yet, the emergencies grow louder and louder, as if emotional mobilization is a substitute for state capacity.
The reality is secular trends determine historical flow, not information. For if we look at the accumulation of events, they will illuminate far more than any emotional conduit online. Two such developments, I’ve covered here: the social recession and the de-centering of the West in global affairs. Even the trend of endless emergencies can be more illuminating than the actual emergency itself. There are exceptions, but assessing the accumulation behind the spectacle is far more explanatory of the world to come.
This spectacle, with its desire for emotional synchronicity, has reached something of a fever pitch precisely at the moment when it is operating least competently. The intensification of the memory hole phenomenon may be evidence that it is in a late, terminal stage. Guy Debord, the author of Society of the Spectacle (1967), wrote in 1988 that the memory hole was especially amenable to political power:
In France, it is a dozen years now since a president of the republic, long since forgotten but at the time still floating on the spectacle’s surface, naively expressed his delight at “knowing that henceforth we will live in a world without memory, where images chase each other, like reflections on the water.”
Convenient indeed for those in business, and who know how to stay there. The end of history gives current-day power a pleasant break. Success is absolutely guaranteed in all of power’s undertakings, or at least the rumor of success.
Although once convenient, I now wonder whether it is near burnout.
Thank you for reading. This took me some time to research and write. So, if you found this piece worthwhile, why not subscribe?
The other kind of religious experience is that of the hermit. But both the ritualistic crowd and the hermit produce the experience fundamental to religion, one that Rudolf Otto called “a mystery both terrifying and fascinating” (mysterium tremendum et fascinans).
There have been multiple interpretations of this statistic presented by IBM, but the math seems to check out, more or less.
Meta has been pretty adamant about its push to super short-form video, as Mark Zuckerburg discusses here in his interview with The Verge.
It should be noted that one politicized predecessor to Memory Hole was Cryptome, founded in 1996.
In 2019, social media marketers and influencers were complaining that their engagement was seeing a precipitous fall. In 2021, the trend became undeniable.