Will Technology Make Human Memory Obsolete?

With writing and then printing, man had already externalized a part of his memory. But those transformations pale, in both speed and breadth, with the current digital revolution.

Have we met before?
Have we met before?
Jacques Henno

PARIS â€" Quick question for urban citizens who own a car: How do you remember where you parked you car the night before? You could memorize the street name and number, which is not very modern (prehistoric man already used his "internal" memory); you could take out a pen and write the address down, though that is so old media (writing and papyrus were invented more than 5,000 years ago); or you could take a picture of the parking spot with your smartphone. Not bad.

But you can get even trendier: downloading an app like Tuture that automatically remembers where your car is.

The deeper question is: How far will the externalization of our memory go? The human being has always used his creativity to devise solutions to save him effort. We have constantly subcontracted a part of the effort of our organs, like muscular work, to others (prisoners, slaves ... ), animals (horses, donkeys ... ) and then to tools or machines.

Memory did not escape this longstanding practice. "We’re living the third act of the externalization of memory," declares Michel Serres. "First there was, in Mesopotamia in about 3,500 BC, the transition from oral to written communication, that allowed humans to transpose memory into codes, written words, on an external object, shelves, papyrus scrolls. Then, there was the invention of printing in the 15th century in Europe."

For this philosopher and historian of science, with the digital age we are again living through an extraordinary change on this front. "Writings, sounds, images â€" Digital technology can save almost everything and spread it very quickly: Half of humanity now has a cellphone."

Memory prostheses

Necessary memorization efforts to acquire and transmit knowledge have been drastically reduced. In the distant past, instructors, those from the oral tradition, had to learn everything by heart; their successors, those from the written tradition, were required only to remember where and how to find a book about any given topic. This effort is now unnecessary. "Today, the access to information is much better than the two previous revolutions: You only need to type some keywords in a search engine," adds Serres.

This all makes it tempting to entrust everything to these "memory prostheses." A study conducted on 6,000 Europeans a few months ago by Kaspersky Lab, specialized in cyber security, revealed that 43% of the respondents between 16 and 24 years old, believe their smartphone contains practically everything they need to know or remember. Some experts, like Nicholas Carr, author of Does the Internet Make You Dumber? or to a lesser extent, Betsy Sparrow, from the department of psychology at New York's Columbia University, believe that youth today suffer from "digital amnesia."

This observation should be seen in relative terms. First, the experts’ views should be taken with caution, simply because they feel threatened by the current revolution, they tend to denigrate it. "If the book was mostly a reading revolution, digital is a revolution that plays down the importance of writing for a large proportion of humanity," states Laurence Allard, a sociologist specialized in innovative communication practices. "So, elites, who until now were the only ones to have access to writing and knowledge, are perturbed."

Secondly, we still lack perspective regarding the phenomenon. "It’s important that we think about the impact of new technologies on education and children," notes Francis Eustache, a neuropsychologist, director of a French research unit completely dedicated to the study of human memory, INSERM Unit U1077. "We would need to be able to conduct an objective study but we lack scientific data."

Critical mind

One thing is certain: If we want to remain social, keep understanding the world, stay imaginative and delay the effects of aging, we will have to be sure our memory is still functioning. "We should give children the time they need to read, learn poetry, songs ... everything that constitutes our collective memory," says Eustache. "Otherwise, our society might lose common ground."

Memory is also essential to a better personal life. "Children are capable of looking to the future when they can remember yesterday," explains Michel Desmurget, a researcher in neurosciences and research director at INSERM. "Memory is the indispensable foundation of intelligence and creativity: Without it, great minds would not have established links between two pieces of information that had never been compared before."

But in addition to intelligence, critical minds and curiosity will stay essential. If only to sort the information proposed by tomorrow’s memory props (connected watches, companion robots etc.). "Google organizes knowledge according to mysterious algorithms: We have to provide our kids with judgment skills and critical thinking that’s, sort of, the trademark of the French education, inherited from the Age of Enlightenment," says Catherine Becchetti-Bizot, the former director of the Ministry of National Education program, "digital for education."

Then on the other side of the life cycle is another consideration: To stem the effects of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, researchers say it is important to stimulate the intellectual activity that calls on memory, known as "cognitive reserve."

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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