When I took part recently on BBC’s The Forum they asked me to come up with a ’60 second idea’ to change the world – a regular slot they have on the show. This is a tough call – but I tried to respond to something that is dear to my heart – part of family life and memory research – and perhaps spurred on by a nascent interest in genealogy. Here, I’ve reproduced the full text – before it was edited down to 60 seconds. And you can listen to the programme here.
I am a memory researcher, and I am most interested in how memory impacts on daily life and our wellbeing. For instance, we have often thought that memory is the storehouse of our identity: we are our memory. That means we store our preferences, ideals, and experiences and use our memory system to draw upon these as we go about our lives. But what about other people’s lives? How do we best remember somebody else? This question is never more important than for friends and family who have died. I think that memory research and technology could have a lot to contribute to how we can better remember someone else, and provide a rich social network for people who are no longer with us. There are two issues here – the legacy of vast amounts of digital information from our personal lives which must be managed and accessed easily, and the facilitation of remembering loved ones in a way which is how they would want to be remembered, and in a way which best maximises our recall of them.
In the film Saving Private Ryan, there’s a scene where the soldiers, far from home are worried they can no longer recall the faces of those that they miss back home. The trick, says Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, is to think of something specific: his wife pruning the rosebushes, for instance. I propose a social network, like a Facebook of the dead by which we can organise our own materials, and pass them on to someone else when we die. We can will all our digital heritage to a curator who can tend for our massive of digital information, through collaboration with others, they can access the information and images which best represent their memory of the dead one, but the person whose site it is can also prepare theit site to reflect what they would like to leave behind.
Of course, Facebook is already beginning to do this. When a face book member dies, they become ‘Memorialized’, this changes the settings and appearance of the site and allows people to access the information in a special way. But we need to do more, and I think memory researchers can help us understand how to optimise the storage of such precious information, but access it in a meaningful way. I am forty years old. I have already stored 27,000 images of my wife and children on my hard-drive. This big block of images is hardly of any use to me, let alone to one of my future ancestors or a family historian. It is too unwieldy and impersonal. I think we could use social media and psychological theory to help us access and store the images which are of most value to us psychologically. We certainly need to start thinking about how we can better store and protect precious social media, and make sure the images of pruning the rosebushes, are not lost in a sea of never-again-looked at snapshots, or empty souvenirs. My advice for now, is to document and record your loved ones interacting and explaining the objects that mean something to them. Let your grandfathers memories of playing, buying and discussing his accordion bring the accordion to life. We are able to will our possessions to people – now, we should be able to will our memories to our loved ones too.