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The year of forgetting - Noah Raford

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‘2011 will be remembered as the year that led up to the events of 2012,’ tweeted Tom Gara (@tomgara), a humorous FT correspondent based here in the UAE.

Although this suggests that nothing really happened in 2011, just the opposite was true: 2011 was one of the biggest years in news history; a year in which event piled upon momentous event with such speed and alacrity that it was barely possible to become familiar with the main actors before they were swept away by some new scandal, some new location, and some new set of names. Is the Libyan NTC the good guys or the bad guys? Did Rebekah Brooks kill Osama, or was it Obama? What were those riots about, again? Like some horrible Ray Kurzweil speech in which slide races past slide, faster than you can say ‘embellishment’, we stand squirming in front of our screens, struggling to come to grips with the rapidly moving world.

One only has to look back at the essay that launched New Public Thinking, last February, to get a sense for how fast things have changed. ‘We need critique and analysis of Wikileaks, the Big Society or the student protests,’ it proclaims.[1] As examples of social concern, these topics are practically passé in their focus. Wikileaks itself is no longer publishing cables, the Big Society feels as politically relevant as Yes Minister’s push for open government, and who even remembers the student protests anymore?

I was at work in Abu Dhabi on 17th December, 2010, the day Mohamed Bouaziz lit himself on fire at his fruit stand in Tunisia. I was also there on Friday, 11th March, when the tidal wave hit Fukushima and the world experienced its worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. Soon after, UK Uncut protesters were occupying Fortnum & Mason and my Emirati friends asked me, ‘Is this the beginning of the British Spring?’ The answer, of course, is no. Not because the anti-cuts protests weren’t significant to those who experienced them, but because events was moving so fast that the insights and analysis of those who experienced them were already becoming obsolete. ‘There are decades where nothing happens,’ Lenin observed, ‘and there are weeks where decades happen.’ 2011 was a year of weeks like that, echoing Marshall McLuhan's famous line: ‘Today each of us lives several hundred years in a decade.’

No wonder nostalgia apps like Instagram are so popular. James Bridle suggests that, because of the network, our lived experience now encompasses everything:

Instagram is all about death. The 70s filters our parents used, artefacts of cameras we’ve never held. Nostalgia is the negation of death, it proves we are still living even without an identifiable future. Instagram is a machine for producing instant nostalgia, a ward against death… The world overflows with experience and information. We cannot remember or contain it all. And so we attempt to spread it, jettisoning it back into the world in order to preserve it.[2]

The result is not just continuous partial attention disorder, but also a process of continuous forgetting. We cannot hope to bear the full weight of the world’s ultraconnected experience and thus can only weather the information storm by continuously jettisoning our memory back onto the world itself. We crave a pause from it all, yet can’t quite bear to tear ourselves away from our screen. It is just all too dramatic and interesting to miss!

This phenomenon is not new. The sociologist Anthony Downs was among the first to introduce the ‘issue-attention cycle’ in relation to the public attention span, almost forty years ago.[3] He suggested that certain issues go through a five-step process, not unlike the Gartner Hype cycle. First, there is a problem. Then the public discovers it and the media inflames it. Downs called this the ‘alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm’ stage. Next, there is a gradually spreading realisation of the difficulties of ‘solving’ the problem, which leads to a gradual decline in public interest and, ultimately, the post-problem stage of forgetting. But, crucially, the post-problem stage leaves public awareness higher than before, and many important policies and initiatives can be enacted during the narrow window of concern and public attention. Issues which stick in the public mind tend to be those which affect individuals personally (not just a minority), provide continual reminders and visible re-enforcement and can be plausibly blamed on a small group of, preferably elite, individuals. Those which are highly visible (like pollution) and yet highly ambiguous (like climate change) have the greatest likelihood of all to remain potent. People who are in a position to understand and manipulate this cycle (and its mini-cycles) stand to benefit the most during its various ebbs and flows.

Unlike a single issue-attention cycle, however, 2011 showered us with discovery after alarmed discovery, as issue after issue cascaded across our screens. The various stories and essays in this volume provide ample evidence for this, with the result more alarm than discovery.

If 2011 was the year of forgetting - and thus, as Gara suggests, will be remembered as merely the one leading up to 2012 - what is in store for the year ahead? What comes after forgetting? While it is entirely possible that we will lurch through another twelve months in some somnambulant state of amnesia, I suggest that after forgetting must come, at some point, remembering. Or, put another way, 2012 could become the year of awakening.

The Merck Manual defines certain forms of amnesia as, ‘the inability to recall some or all of one's past and either the loss of one's identity or the formation of a new identity with sudden, unexpected, purposeful travel away from home.’[4] The question is, what will we awaken to, and who will we choose to become? For many of us, it took everything we had to get through the last 12 months; in this case, I suggest 2012 will be an even more difficult year. It will be a year not of great cataclysm and hopelessness, but instead of slow grinding; metal upon metal as the final credit line comes due, the final overdraft is exhausted, and our final bottles of spirits runs dry. At some point, the pace of networked change will become too much for many, or will hit too close to home. Then, and only then, some of us may have had enough and, dazed, reach out to turn off the TV, shut down our Twitter feed and close the lid of our laptop. And what we find around us, looking up from our weary screens, outside, beneath and between the cacophony of global events, will reveal just how much we have forgotten in 2011. Will we find a tight, loving embrace of a family? A warm, well-cared for network of friends and colleagues? A thriving local economy of flesh and blood, with a place by the fire to share a pint and trade our wares? Or will we not be so lucky?

On a personal scale, the degree to which our buffers have survived the cacophony of forgetfulness in 2011 may determine the character of our awakening in 2012. Should these social, psychological, emotional and financial buffers hold out, then the awakening will be mild and we could enjoy another prolonged season of forgetfulness. New TV series will launch, new semesters will begin, and new baubles of incremental change will hold our fascination for yet another year. But should the buffers fail, and we find ourselves at the edge of our means on the end of a very narrow, very shaky branch, then 2012 will be a year of panic, reaction and fear. What flavour this takes will depend on the degree of joblessness, social distance and emotional isolation we experience. At its extreme, it will look like the August riots on an international scale: burning tires, burning buildings and burning ratings as ‘euphoric enthusiasm’ turns to dysphoric aggression.

Finally, should our buffers fail and we find, to our great delight, that we are lucky enough to live in a local community of friends, relatives, trust and hope, then 2012 will be a difficult, but transformational year. It will be one of turning off the screen, going outside, taking stock and clearing out the cupboards. We shall jettison our credit lines, close down our failed businesses, call our mums, and maybe even move back home in an effort to dial down our more plastic aspirations of grandeur. Reconnecting to loved ones, providing help to friends in need or lending a hand at the local market will all strengthen and affirm the bonds that make a community grow. If this is the case, then the slow, grinding (hopefully non-cataclysmic) drama of the world stage will somehow seem less important than it did in 2011. Less dramatic, less urgent and, for a time, less alarming.

Only then, I suggest, can we get down to what anthropologist David Graeber calls ‘the important work of keeping the system from disaster through tactful interventions meant to protect the oblivious and self-important [people] in charge from the consequences of their own blindness.’[5] We may not be so lucky; but if we do find ourselves in this position, then the vision of acting as system-repairing non-combatants and psycho-social medics, providing shelter for the shell-shocked around us, is as worthy a goal as I can think of for 2012.

  1. Dougald Hine, ‘Time for New Public Thinking’, New Public Thinking, 3 February 2011 - http://newpublicthinkers.org/?p=8
  2. James Bridle, ‘An Elixir of Reminding’, booktwo.org, 24 March 2011 -http://booktwo.org/notebook/elixir-of-reminding/
  3. Anthony Downs, ‘Up and down with ecology - the “issue-attention cycle”’, Public Interest 28 (1972:Summer): 38-50
  4. Mark H. Beers et al, The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy (Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck Publications, 1999) p.1521
  5. David Graeber, ‘Beyond Power/Knowledge: An exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity’, Malinowski Lecture, LSE, 25 May 2006 - http://libcom.org/files/20060525-Graeber.pdf