This chapter originally appeared in the 2013 book “Meaning and
Memory: Digital Differences”, first published by the Inter-Disciplinary Press.
Blended Memory: the Changing Balance of Technologically-
mediated Semantic and Episodic Memory
Ubiquitous technologies are leading us to be less selective when capturing,
reviewing, and sharing details of the events in our lives. Reviewing digital photos
has been shown to help the reinforcement of autobiographical memory. However,
we need to know more about the type of memory experience these practices lead
to. Accessing too much recorded detail about past events could lead our minds to
engage less fully in the construction of memory, avoiding episodic experience by
short-cutting to semantic knowledge. External memory has always been crucial to
our memory process and our growing digital memories bring with them great
potential advantages. Technology should, however, be designed to complement our
minds rather than to replace them. Increased distance from our own experience
through a failure to invoke episodic memory may lead to detachment from our own
memories and, consequently, from our sense of self and from others. This chapter
introduces the term ‘blended memory’ to conceptualise the balance of internal
(biological) and external (physical, digital or communal) memory, then uses digital
photography as a focus for speculating on how changes to this balance might
impact on the way we view our past, present and future.
Key Words: Memory, technology, episodic, semantic, selectivity, effort,
reflection, digital photos.
Digital technology is changing the way we capture, store, review and share
details of the events in our lives. Digital cameras, for example, allow us to take
hundreds, or even thousands, of photos at minimal cost. They allow us to review
photos immediately and retake unsatisfactory ones. We are printing fewer photos,
viewing them instead on computer screens, mobile phones and other devices.
Websites such as Flickr and Facebook allow us to instantly send our photos to
large groups of people. Add to this the rate at which personal information is
expanding in our email accounts, social-networking sites and mobile devices, and a
picture begins to form of a social memory similar to what Jung called our
‘collective unconscious’. 1
Our growing digital memory stores bring with them great potential advantages.
We can bridge the gap between remote family members and friends by showing
them the changes in ourselves, our children and our surroundings. We can access
large banks of global knowledge, as well as minute details about our lives that
would have been lost in the pre-digital era. Alongside these benefits, however, is a
concern that we are becoming less selective about what we capture, store, review
and share. In the case of photography, where the expense and limited storage
capacity of photographic film once forced us to make considered decisions about
what we chose to capture, we can now shoot hundreds of photos before further
action is required. Instead of organising printed photos into physical albums, we
are more likely to copy digital photos to a computer, perhaps without even looking
at them, particularly if we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of our collections.2
Sharing memory artefacts (such as photos or videos) via the Internet or email can
reduce our engagement in the co-construction of memory narratives as compared
to when we talk about them with others in physical, face-to-face settings.3
All of this points to a reduction in effort, selectivity and reflection when
encoding and consolidating memory with the help of artefacts. This chapter argues
that, through a lack of reflection on our use of digital technologies, we may be
reducing the depth of our engagement with memory practices while retaining too
much detail about our lives that would otherwise be forgotten. There are two
important consequences of this. Firstly, we are spreading our attention too thinly
across too many cues to our memory, potentially changing the balance of memory
away from rich experience and toward surface knowledge of ourselves. Secondly,
it may be more difficult to effectively develop identity if we are less selective
about what we choose to assimilate and what we discard.
The following section discusses the relationship between memory and identity,
highlighting the importance of memory malleability in the construction of our
sense of self.
2. The nature of memory
This chapter is mostly concerned with those conscious traces of our past we call
declarative memory (i.e. facts and experiences).4 This kind of memory is central to
our existence in that it allows us to make connections between our past, present
and future.5 Every time we recall an experience, we change the nature of the
memory, reconstructing it based on stored information.6 Hassabis and Maguire
describe this process as scene construction: ‘the process of mentally generating and
maintaining a complex and coherent scene or event’.7 According to this model of
memory, we retrieve encoded information relevant to the ‘scene’ of the experience.
We can think of this retrieved information as anchor points which we connect via
constructed imagery. Over time, the subsequent retrieval of this constructed
imagery leads to Schacter's ‘sin of transience’ or the distortion of remembered
In 1972, Endel Tulving characterised two distinct systems relating to
declarative memory: the semantic and episodic systems.9 In evolutionary terms, the
semantic system probably developed first, with the episodic system developing
relatively recently.10 Episodic memory also develops later in childhood than does
semantic, and the episodic system seems to be dependent on a functional semantic
memory.11 Both are vital to our capacity to act and think as humans.
Episodic memory is concerned with traces of our experienced events. Recall is
characterised by the subjective re-experience of an event, including an awareness
of the sense that it is you remembering your personal experience (or ‘autonoetic
awareness’), as well as a sense of the time and space in which the event originally
happened.12 To achieve episodic recall, one must be autonoetically aware at both
the time of encoding and retrieval. This awareness depends on autonoetic
consciousness: the capacity for self-awareness and the feeling of being present
within the relevant moment as an entity separate from the environment.13,14
Elements of experience can also be stored in semantic memory, but these differ
from those stored in episodic memory in that they contain only the details of what
happened, not the subjective, personal connection to those details.15 To illustrate
this difference between the two memory systems, picturing (mentally re-
experiencing) a visit to a restaurant in Paris would require accessing episodic
memory, whereas thinking of the name of the street it was on might only require
Semantic memory is impersonal and detached, but it is faster and easier to
access than episodic memory. Therefore, if we have enough semantic details on
hand to solve a problem, we may choose to avoid the extra effort of re-
experiencing a memory.16 In this way, semantic memory can act as a heuristic
device for episodic content, increasing efficiency but decreasing emotional
connection.17 For example, if we see a lion, we are able to recognise the danger it
poses without remembering the events that led us to this knowledge, allowing us to
react quickly to the situation. However, semantic memory can also approximate
episodic memory since it is possible to construct episodic-like narratives that are
based on semantic autobiographical information.18 Such narratives may give the
impression that the narrator can remember the subjective qualities of the
experience even if he or she is simply accessing knowledge of the details of the
Episodic recollection, in particular, is thought to have many potential benefits
such as improving self esteem, aiding the construction of identity and goal-
systems,19 and enhancing the ability to connect socially with others.20 To illustrate
the importance of this type of memory, we can look at patients with frontal lobe
damage that is believed to be associated with impairments in autonoetic
consciousness and episodic memory.21 Such patients have been shown to lack self-
reflection and, in some cases, despite awareness of their cognitive deficits, to also
lack concern at their condition. This is consistent with the inability to connect
semantic knowledge (that they have a cognitive impairment) to their own,
subjective situation.22 People with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Alzheimer's
Disease are also thought to have impaired capacity for episodic recall, leading to
problems in social interaction and the ability to anticipate future possibilities. 23,24
Episodic memory appears to be more malleable than semantic memory.25 In
episodic memory, as in our fantasies, our dreams and our projections of the future,
we use imagination to create an internal representation of the world.26 This internal
representation is susceptible to suggestion from external influences. Just as dreams,
for example, are responsive to external stimuli such as the noise of an alarm clock,
our memories have been shown to be susceptible to ideas, preconceptions and
One important example of this was shown by a swathe of recent studies,
prompted by developments in DNA evidence, that pointed to a series of wrongful
convictions based on eyewitness testimony.27 These studies showed the fallibility
of historical eyewitness procedures due to the effects on recall produced by leading
questions (e.g. ‘Did you see a red Ford parked outside?’), choice of descriptors
(e.g. ‘smashed’ vs ‘hit’ when asking about a collision between two cars) or by
showing line-up suspects simultaneously rather than individually.28,29
Studies into false memory have shown that we can take the seed of an
experience which did not happen and weave it into our existing memories and
beliefs. For example, Elizabeth Loftus has shown that ‘many cases of allegedly
recovered memories have turned out to be false memories implanted by well-
meaning therapists who use suggestion and imagination to guide the search for
memories.’30 Some participants were even convinced that they had experienced
implausible events, such as meeting Bugs Bunny (a character owned by Warner
Brothers, rather than Disney) at Disneyland.31 In another study, Loftus and
colleagues showed that false memories can influence future behaviour when they
found that those participants in whom they were able to introduce a false childhood
memory of being sick after eating a hard-boiled egg, were more likely to avoid
hard-boiled eggs in the future.32
A false memory's integrated appearance can be convincing because we
construct complementary details to enhance its authenticity. Bernstein and Loftus
also claim that researchers have started to compare the qualities of veridical
memories with those of rich false memories, with few differences emerging.33 It
seems that memory’s malleability is necessary to the development of our identities
as we reconfigure our memories to be consistent with our current perspective.34
This allows us to make decisions based on how we feel and what we know now,
rather than at some point in our past.
Given memory’s susceptibility to distortion, it is unsurprising that we turn to
external objects to guide our recall. Along with supporting our memory processes,
our artefacts have the power to alter not only what we remember, but the meaning
we take from the resulting memories. The following section uses the case of digital
photography to discuss the integration of internal and external memory.
3. Blended Memory
The term ‘blended memory’ is used here to conceptualise the balance of
internal (biological) and external (physical, digital or communal) memory.
External memory has always been crucial to our memory process. For many
centuries, we have distributed our knowledge by speaking to other people or
writing our thoughts on paper. Our capacity to operate as humans is dependent on
our ability to manipulate our environment via tools and technologies. Marshall
McLuhan famously wrote that ‘The wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is
an extension of the eye; clothing, an extension of the skin, electric circuitry, an
extension of the central nervous system.’35 Our computers, cameras, phones, pens
and paper are extensions of our overall personal and cultural memory systems.
Blended memory is a natural progression from our inherent tendency to enter into
what philosopher Andy Clark calls ‘deep and complex relationships with
nonbiological constructs, props and aids.’36
The characteristics of our media and their associated tools strongly influence
our perceptions of the information they mediate and, therefore, the meaning we
take from our interaction with them. Alongside helping us to remember our
experiences, artefacts alter the view we have of ourselves and our world in often
subtle yet significant ways.37 For example, language - a cognitive artefact - gives
us rules that simplify the expression and interpretation of ideas. The tools used for
communication further restrict our use of language. Speech, for example, is
constrained through choices of intonation, accent and timing. Writing is
constrained by alphabets and by the eloquence of the writer. Email is further
constrained by its interface - the keyboard, the fonts, the subject field, signatures,
etc. Far from impeding us, these constraints help us to understand each other by
narrowing the range of potential meanings.
Only certain information persists through the process of mediation. Smell,
touch and taste, for example, are lost in a video. Sound is lost in a photo, as are
aspects of any scene that are not visible within the frame of the lens. Other
information is altered. For example, taking a photograph of my cat and uploading it
to Facebook does not allow my friends to see my cat, as such. Instead, it allows
them to see a single representation of my cat, captured at a particular angle at a
particular instant in time. This representation is mediated through my camera’s lens
and software, then through Facebook’s software, then through my friend’s web
browser, computer (or phone, or iPad, etc.) and the pixels on the screen.
Each of our four key memory practices (capturing, storing, retrieving and
sharing) is altered through interaction with artefacts. Using digital photography as
our focus, these changes are explored in the next section, including the challenges
we face in maintaining authentic engagement with our memories.
The practice of capturing, here, refers to the processes involved when we take a
photograph. Each time we take a photo of an experience, it alters the experience by
making the situation somewhat contrived.38 Imagine, for example, that I decide to
take a photograph at a dinner party to capture the convivial atmosphere. Despite
this atmosphere having developed through natural and spontaneous interaction, I
call this interaction to a halt and ask everyone to move into positions they would
not have occupied during the experience other than for the purpose of being
photographed. People are arranged according to height, asked to move closer to the
centre, to stop talking and to smile. People who were in other rooms are asked to
leave what they were doing and stand in the frame of the picture so that the whole
event can be summarised in a photograph that implies a social comfort and group
cohesion which may or may not really exist. Perhaps there is one person who fails
in their task of posing (for example, by looking at something other than the
camera) because they are more attentive to the social experience itself than to the
project of creating a representation of it. This person may even be reprimanded for
‘ruining the picture’ as everyone is asked to remain in position for the next attempt.
Even if we do not impose such formality on the scene, the presence of the camera
creates a change in what is captured. Roland Barthes eloquently described the way
in which the knowledge that a photo is being taken changes how we feel during the
experience.39 This applies not just to those in the frame, but also to those behind
the lens, an idea that should be particularly evident to anyone who has taken a
photograph and then forgotten to look at the scene through their own eyes.
Although we are, to some extent, aware of the mediating nature of
photography, we may cast blame on the environment before blaming the camera.
Although we might say ‘it didn’t really look like that,’ we are as likely to blame
environmental lighting for a poor photograph as we are the camera’s inability to
represent such lighting (which was, after all, part of our experience of the
environment in which the photo was taken). Equally, we may be aware that the
photo does not contain certain important details, such as a friend who was outside
(or, indeed, holding the camera), or that there is no photograph of a particular
important incident. Over time, however, we become less aware of such effects of
mediation and we are likely to forget large parts of the event for which there is no
external record. Thus, while photos are undoubtedly effective aids to the recall of
episodic memory,40 they may distort the salience of particular aspects of an
experience. This ‘levelling and sharpening’ process leads memories to become
distorted by certain details becoming exaggerated (sharpened) as other details fade
(levelled).41 Photographs encourage this process by showing us those elements of
our experiences which happened to be captured by the camera (visual information
that was present in the frame of the lens) and not showing us elements of the
experience which happened not to be captured (sounds, smells, emotions, visual
information outside the frame of the lens, or anything that happened before or after
the click of the shutter).
Barthes claimed that a photograph (at least, an analogue one that is created
through the action of light on chemicals) proves that its referent elements (those
details present in the image) have existed.42 Photography, however, shows us a
contrived view of past existence, capturing only the space between two moments,
only the view from the angle of the lens, and only the quality of colours and shapes
determined by the camera's mechanics. Subjects and environment are often
arranged to suit the photograph as we select which view of reality to attempt to
capture based on the nature of our equipment and our abilities to use it. Dark,
interior spaces, night-time events and rainy days are, consequently, doomed to be
under-represented because we are happier photographing outdoor, sunny scenes.
Photographs are taken for various purposes. They might be taken for aiding our
memory of an experience, for communication (e.g. ‘look what my child did
today’), for artistic purposes (e.g. a macro shot of a bee on a sunflower) or for a
combination of these. The purpose of any given photo may be unclear to both the
photographer and the audience, and its subsequent use may be other than intended.
A colleague recently said, ‘you take photographs that you're going to show people,
but you don't. Or I don't, often, which is crazy, really. They're striking at the time.’
This statement implies that the perceived importance of a given photograph often
fades over time, and we are unable to accurately predict what will be interesting to
us in the future. It may be that this leads us to take more photographs than we will
need, just in case the scene we are capturing turns out to be interesting to us at a
later date. But to what extent does taking the photograph change the experience
itself due to an assumption that we will use this footage in the future to help us
remember the present?
Digital technology is undoubtedly changing the nature of photography. Until
recently, most photographers used rolls of film which could hold 24 or 36 photos.
Developing these photographs cost money and time. Due to the expense, photos
were mostly taken at special events and holidays, and a roll of film might last two
or three holidays. By contrast, digital cameras allow us to take hundreds of photos
before any further action is required. We can avoid the cost of purchasing rolls of
film and the cost of having them developed. As a consequence, we are less
selective about what we capture, sometimes taking multiple photos of the same
thing in an attempt to achieve the perfect representation. A consequence of being
less selective with our photo-taking is a decreased investment in the decision-
making around what aspects of an experience are most important to record. In the
pre-digital era, having a limit to the number of photos we could reasonably take of
an event helped us to consider, more closely, the relative value of the experiences
we wished to capture.
The practice of storing involves the collation of our captured photos, deciding
which to keep and which to throw away, sorting them into categories and locations,
and maintaining them in some sort of order. Photographs are one of our most
precious possessions.43 Our collections of photos form an integral part of our
personal histories and we derive comfort from the knowledge that we have them
somewhere, even if we are not sure of their exact location. In the pre-digital era,
photos were generally stored in albums or in boxes. As such, there were practical
limits to how many photos we could keep. Sorting them into albums was a time-
consuming job that helped us to be selective about which ones we chose to give
more prominence and which were relegated to a box in a cupboard or attic. This
process required thinking about organisational themes (e.g. a timeline of a
particular person, family weddings, holidays, etc.). Photos and albums were
labelled to varying extents, providing some ‘metadata’ for more efficient
searching, or more detail to help cue memories about particular events.
With respect to pre-digital photos, the role of the family gatekeeper (the person
who controlled access to the family’s archives), was most often a maternal figure
who assumed responsibility for sorting and storing the photos and who,
consequently, was the most likely person to know where to find them.44 The
equivalent digital family archives are now more likely to be controlled by a
paternal figure,45 based on knowledge of where to find the files on the home
computer or on a web-based account.46 However, an increasing number of
individual archives are now also being maintained (e.g. by younger people), and
the owners of these are having to develop their own systems of storage and access
Digital storage space is of little concern to most people due to expanding disk
capacities and, although the amount of time we spend taking photos is increasing,
there is evidence that the resulting files often remain unorganised on hard-disks or
may even remain on the camera itself.49 Our reduction in selectivity when taking
photos seems to be matched by a reduction in selectivity around which photos we
choose to keep. The relative expense of deletion (as deleting photos becomes more
time-consuming than creating them) is resulting in overwhelmingly large personal
The practice of reviewing involves looking at the photographs we have
captured. Just as some mediation of reality is necessary for us to make sense of and
operate in the world, some cueing is important for the retrieval of episodic
memories. Reviewing photographs from our past helps to connect us with our
memories of the related experiences.
In pre-digital times, after waiting for the developer to process our film, we
would often receive a heavy envelope or two that we looked through immediately.
Those overexposed or blurred photos that had not already been discarded by the
developer could be thrown away. We would probably look through them again,
perhaps with friends or family, when we returned home before processing them for
storage. The next time we looked at them, they were generally either in sorted
albums or unsorted boxes. Expanding digital photo collections are forcing us to
change our reviewing practices. For one thing, it can be increasingly difficult to
locate our images. In a study of reviewing practices of digital photo collections, the
most frequent reason given by participants for retrieval difficulties was having too
many pictures.51 This is exacerbated when collections have become spread across a
number of devices.
Our vast collections make it more difficult for us to limit our reviewing to a
select number of photos associated with a single theme. This is potentially
problematic because deriving personal meaning from our artefacts requires us to
attach associations to them from our internal memory.52 Effort and selectivity are
likely to be essential to this process, since associations must be reinforced through
Another factor which may disrupt meaning-making is the increasing tendency
for subjective associations (created by humans) between events to be replaced by
algorithms (created by technology) based on metadata filters. One example of this
can be seen on platforms such as Facebook and Flickr which use search algorithms
or tags to decide which photos to display. Another example of machine-based
categorisation occurs when large numbers of photos are automatically copied into
the same folder on a disk, resulting in an increased probability that they will be
reviewed together. Both scenarios are a result of photos being connected via
metadata (e.g. a tag on Flickr or a folder location on a hard drive) rather than via
the subjective choices of their owners based on aspects of personal meaning.
It is clear that metadata influences how we retrieve memory artefacts. In his
chapter of this book on Metadata and New Architectures of Memory, Carlos Falci
gives us a striking example of how the website ‘We Feel Fine’ creates architectures
of memory based on metadata. Often, such metadata is written by our media tools
themselves, increasing the influence of mediation on the organisation and retrieval
of memory artefacts. Metadata leads us to connect one experience to another not
through subjective association but through the connections that are inherent in the
digital data. Just as objects captured in a photo tend to assume a greater relative
importance than those objects not captured, our memories can be distorted by
metadata which over-emphasises particular aspects of an experience. In some
cases, this may even lead to source misattribution, where the source of a memory is
influenced by incorrect suggestion.53 For example, if a digital photograph is given
an incorrect tag or description, or it is found in the wrong place, our associated
memories may adapt to this false information. This is not to say that metadata is
inherently negative - it can also help us to avoid misattribution, and is particularly
important with large photo sets. For example, if we cannot remember when or
where a particular photograph was taken, or whether or not it is even our photo,
metadata can help us to contextualise it and recreate associations to other
While our biological memories distort over time, the information contained in
memory artefacts seems to remain relatively stable. Because of this perceived
resilience, we can become reliant on memory artefacts to verify our biological
recall in the same way that people have become reliant on calculators and spell-
checkers.54 As a result, the degradation experienced in our (unaided) mathematical
and spelling skills may be replicated in our factual and episodic recall. As Loftus
and Calvin have suggested, ‘We’ll rely more on digital storehouses full of video
and audio files of our lives... because we also realize how unreliable human
memory can be.’55
Although digital records help to increase the accuracy of our recall, accuracy is
not necessarily the most important measure of memory. The value of a memory is
also related to its meaningfulness to us (its perceived significance to our identity)
and its usefulness to us (its potential for incorporation into goal-systems and
decision-making). It may seem reasonable that more photos should lead to more
accurate memories that are also more meaningful (given that they are closer to
their corresponding reality) and more useful (given that they contain more real-
world information that we can respond to), but such precision may reduce
opportunities for reflection and interpretation. Each photo affords interpretation of
the happenings before and after the frozen moment that has been captured, and the
degree of interpretation afforded is affected by what other evidence is present (for
example, in other photos). It may be that if there are a large number of photos
showing other moments of an event, the affordance of interpretation is reduced,
leaving us with less opportunity to extract subjective meaning from our experience.
The practice of sharing refers to those times when we present our photos to
other people. By sharing photographs with friends and family, we engage in the co-
construction of memory narratives and perform an important part of the memory
consolidation process.56 In the pre-digital era, when we returned home with our
newly printed photos, there was often a sense of excitement as we showed them to
those around us. Leafing through the sets of prints, stories would emerge and
connections would be made with other events. Care would often be taken not to
smudge the photos and, inevitably, their order would be altered by this interaction.
At other times, photos were shared via albums, slideshows or as framed pictures.
These interactions would generally take place in comfortable, social spaces such as
Although remote sharing platforms such as Facebook now mean that we often
share photos with people in far away places before we share them with those at
home, digital photos also continue to be shared in co-present, face-to-face ways. In
the age of desktop computers, this was not always a particularly rewarding
experience with people crowding around a PC which was often located in a
working space rather than a social space. Such environments are less conducive to
reminiscence than more relaxed, social environments. In 2008, Nunes et al. found
that printed photos, rather than those in digital form, were preferred for showing to
others and for displaying around their home or office. 57 This may now be changing
with the emerging popularity of aesthetic, portable devices such as tablet
computers and smart phones which can be physically passed from one person to
another in comfortable, social settings.
Remote sharing via online platforms creates a different social dynamic and
results in a different co-construction of narrative around memory. These narratives
often take the form of a series of temporally-dispersed comments from a varied
audience, members of which may have had no previous contact with their fellow
discussants.58 Such new practices of memory sharing are blurring the boundaries
between individual and communal memory as we extract information from a
variety of familiar or unknown sources. Unrestrained sharing of our personal
memory artefacts (e.g. by making them publicly-accessible), could lead to
detachment from our memories by reducing our ownership of them. This potential
for detachment is illustrated by a quote from a featured student in ‘Class Pictures’,
a book of portraits of US high school students: ‘[looking at my picture] feels
strange because I am trying to extract a private memory from an image that is now
Transferring memory to the digital realm dissociates it from the place where the
remembered experience occurred. Similarly, photographs (digital or chemical)
‘untie’ memory from the context in which it was created. When digital memories
are distributed to multiple spaces, there may be a further decoupling from the
original context. The increasing trend of photography as communicative memory
(e.g. photos sent to communicate something new rather than as an aid to nostalgia)
may be, as Falci points out in his chapter, leading to thematic instability and
disorganised collections of memory objects. Through his exploration of memory
sharing through technological interfaces, Falci provides more evidence that
changing our memory practices alters the memories themselves by showing the
significance of the context of remembrance. It seems, however, that we still
attribute significant value to the source, if not the original context, of a photo. In
the digital era, it is much easier to access other people’s photos, yet many of us still
prefer to take our own rather than incorporate those of other people into our
collections. While some people are happy to let others photograph an event with
the understanding that photographs will subsequently be shared, it is rare for us to
download the photos of strangers as a replacement for those we failed to take. In
the case of tourist photos, such as of the Eiffel Tower, it would be easy to find a
photo very similar to one we might have taken, including lighting conditions,
weather, etc. But our photos are not just of a place: they are of a place at a specific
time. They coincide with the exact time that we were there and are used to show
not what it was like in Paris, but what it was like in Paris at the time I was there.
Perhaps knowing that a photograph was taken at a time when we were not there
undermines the meaning we might otherwise take from it.
4. Balancing Blended Memory
Just as our biological memories are prone to distortion, blended memory can be
affected by memory bias, disrupting the authenticity of the relationship between a
memory artefact and our experience of the remembered event. Firstly, if we rely
too heavily on digital artefacts, we risk constraining our recollection largely to
information that is stored in our external archives. Adding metadata, such as tags
or comments, may help retain some of the context of an event, but we remain
unable to artificially retrieve associated memories or associated emotional or
sensory information. These must be accessed through episodic memory, by
cognitively reconstructing some part of the original experience. If we do not do
this, distortion of our memory through levelling and sharpening may be
exacerbated as certain details, present in our artefacts, become exaggerated while
other, absent details fade.60
While large photo collections contain extensive arrays of memory cues that
help us to remember many details of our lives, it is important to consider what kind
of memory we are accessing. Technology should be designed to complement our
minds rather than to replace them. Key, here, is the constructive, rather than
reproductive, nature of our memories.61 Conway argues that to maintain a coherent
sense of self, we need to align our past and our present identities by continuously
reconstructing our memories.62 Does our knowledge of the existence of particular
photos impede our development by pulling us back to events we would prefer to
forget? Schacter wrote that ‘remembering the past more accurately or negatively
can leave us discouraged’.63 Constructing our memories to suit our identity and
view of the world allows us to forget those experiences that hinder our personal
evolution. Having overly detailed records of our experience will change the way in
which we are able to do this because our degrees of freedom will be reduced by
having too many ‘anchor points’. When Mayer-Schonberger wrote that ‘through
perfect memory we may lose a fundamental human capacity - to live and act firmly
in the present,’ he described the potential for us to get stuck in redundant patterns
of thinking due to exposure to evidence that we did, said or experienced something
that would more usefully be forgotten.64 Schacter goes further by claiming that our
inability to remember detailed trivial facts may be the key to our ability to
generalise and recognise patterns that allow us to organise our view of the world.65
We cannot be sure that the concerns raised in this chapter are justified. Despite
our long history of externalising memory, changes to our related practices have
always been contentious. The advent of writing, argued Plato's character Socrates
in the Phaedrus (274-7), weakened the mind by leading people to rely on external
artefacts rather than maintaining internal thought.66 Similarly, the printing press,
according to scientist Conrad Gessner, heralded ‘an unmanageable flood of
information’.67 While these technologies did radically change our memory
practices, it would be difficult to argue that they decreased our quality of life. The
same may be true of our increasingly digitised blended memories. Distributing
aspects of our cognition to external artefacts frees up some of our working memory
and allows us to engage in abstract thinking that would otherwise be impossible.68
It also allows us access to a rapidly expanding collective memory that has the
potential to be an immensely valuable, if controversial, resource. Perhaps, rather
than degrading biological encoding and recall, increasing the amount of our
personal history that is stored in external devices will enhance the cueing and
reinforcement of our memories through access to extensive digital evidence. Most
likely, this will differ for each person, depending on individual traits and exposure
One area in which digital technology has the potential to be particularly
beneficial is in cases of severe memory impairment, such as in Alzheimer's
Disease, Autism or Schizophrenia. Reviewing digital photos have been found to
help reinforcement in general,69 and innovative recording technologies such as
Sensecam (a wearable camera that automatically photographs daily movements)
have been shown to help people with memory impairment.70 Lee and Dey add a
note of caution, however, that people with episodic memory impairment are
limited in the number of cues they can use,71 again highlighting the importance of
selectivity. Further, as beneficial as digital memory aids would appear to be,
particularly for those with memory impairment, there is very limited research into
the types of memory these innovations are supporting. There is a risk that what we
are really doing when we provide an abundance of memory cues is reinforcing
semantic memory but not episodic memory. For example, Pauly-Takacs et al.
claim that using a Sensecam helped a 13-year-old boy with profound memory
impairment to support the formation of personal semantic memory but failed to
support episodic memory.72
A. Engaging blended memory: selectivity, effort and reflection
The potential biases described in this chapter may, at least to some extent, be
mitigated through authentic cognitive engagement with our memories and their
related artefacts. Such engagement is likely to require selectivity, effort and
Without being selective about what we capture, store, review and share, we risk
becoming overwhelmed by our collections of memory artefacts. In recent times,
the effort people have spent on arranging printed photos into physical albums,
sitting in social spaces and comparing their related memory narratives has been an
important part of the consolidation of personalised memory.73 Being selective
increases our freedom to engage more fully with fewer artefacts, organising them,
reflecting on their meaning and constructing narratives around them with friends
The reduction of selectivity described in this chapter is, at least in part, a result
of some inherent affordances of our digital toolset. An emphasis on increasing the
amount of data that can be captured and stored has reduced our incentive to think
about the types of information that would most usefully be captured and stored for
our individual purposes.74 Practically limitless space allows us to avoid making
difficult decisions about what we should or should not keep or, indeed, record in
the first place. The price of this freedom may be a loss of criticality about the
importance of our memory artefacts. We no longer need to consider what is
important to us or why we seek to capture a particular detail. Instead, we tend to
take the behaviour of others as justification for our own. We see friends uploading
holiday snaps to Facebook and feel obliged to do the same. We see others
photographing a tourist landmark and hasten to take out our own camera. What we
may not do is question whether these practices suit us as individuals.
Despite our best intentions of sorting through our photos and reflecting on our
experiences, it seems many of us simply leave piles of photos in ‘mass-grave’
folders on our computers and hard-drives. Often, we do not annotate them, save for
the machine-generated metadata created by our devices.75 This metadata is
technology-centric, containing the information that is most easily captured rather
than that which is most important to us. In a way, this is an opportunity for us to
enter the subjective, personalised information ourselves, and it is only right that we
should do so. Such engagement, however, is expensive in terms of time and effort.
If the number of our artefacts is too great and the required time and effort exceeds
our capacity, we may become overwhelmed and give up.
In his book Things That Make Us Smart, Norman proposed that when we
operate in the world, we do so in one of two modes: experiential or reflective.76
The experiential mode allows us to act efficiently and effortlessly and is similar to
automatic processing, while the reflective mode involves deeper thinking,
comparing and contrasting ideas, and decision making. When we review our
photos in experiential mode, skimming through without learning from them,
reprocessing our experiences and creating new connections, we are experiencing
them more as entertainment than as part of a developmental process. This is a
perfectly healthy activity as long as a balance is maintained between such
experiential engagement, which helps to maintain interest, and reflective
engagement, which helps to forge new connections between ideas.77
Talking about photographs with friends and family is a good way of
encouraging reflection since it often provides new perspectives and associations.
Although technologies are facilitating new practices of sharing, many of these
involve short textual responses rather than the recounting of lengthier narratives.
Yet rich narratives are important for the forging of subjective associations.
Reminiscence is more effective, too, when conducted in varying contexts and
environments. The presence of an unexpected stimulus, being in a different
environment, or conversing with someone you haven’t spoken to for a while, often
promotes the rediscovery of long-forgotten memories. We should attempt to
engage not just in remote memory sharing but also co-located sharing, such as that
enabled by mobile digital devices or old-fashioned, printed photographs.78
Fortunately, printing and displaying photos in creative ways is becoming easier,
with quick and affordable online services providing easy platforms for creating
elegant photo books, digital canvas prints, customised greeting cards, and more.
Practices such as this aid reflection and help us to be selective since it is not
practical to include hundreds of photos in these creations.
While co-located sharing and the creation of printed displays are to be
encouraged, reflection need not be restricted to old-fashioned practices. Indeed,
new forms of reflection are made possible by digitisation. For example, wearing a
Sensecam for a week gave participants of one study an insight into how much time
they spent doing particular activities (e.g. driving, eating, playing with their
children).79 Another type of memory analysis can be seen through Deb Roy’s
HouseFly technology which creates rich data visualisations of activities within a
home, allowing various perspectives on family behavioural patterns over time.80
Among other things, this technology allowed him to observe the locations within
his home where his son learned to say the word ‘water’.81
Unfortunately, many of our tools currently encourage experiential engagement
at the expense of reflection. The sort of reviewing and sharing that occurs across
Facebook or Flickr, for example, is often disjointed because we allow the software
to make explicit, data-driven links for us, based on date, location, tagging or search
algorithms. These tools focus on making it easy to store, review and share photos
but this ease, unsurprisingly, comes at the expense of effort. We are able to remain
in experiential mode, passively allowing our photographs to wash over us without
critical thought. This is not to say that we no longer engage reflectively with these
photos, but that our tools do not encourage it.
Although it happens all too rarely, technology can be designed to help us think.
For example, posing familiar cues in unusual ways can lead us to reconfigure our
thinking about our experiences and form new connections with them. Karen
Frostig’s chapter on The Vienna Project shows how a new, digital medium can
breathe new life into an old practice to create emotional reactions and critical and
Creative forms of memory analysis such as those described above have the
power to reshape our personal or collective memory. The truth is that we are
always reshaping our memory, both personally and culturally. If we accept that
remembering involves reconstruction, it is possible to view all memory (and
history) as ‘false’ because, rather than retrieving complete records of our past, we
are using our imagination to construct a scene around a reduced set of information
that we have filtered through our current world view.82 The accuracy of our
memories may depend on the qualities and number of this set of informational
anchor points, as well as on the difference between our present view and the view
from which we experienced the original event. Perhaps, though, we should not be
overly preoccupied with the accuracy of memory. While it is important that our
goals, decision-making and identities are generally aligned with reality, some
flexibility may be in our interests. It may, for example, be healthy for us to
remember our childhood as happier than it was, or for us to have forgotten some of
the more embarrassing or hurtful incidents of our past.
Technology should be designed and used in a considered way that increases the
value of our interaction with it, not just the quantity of its output. Digital memory
stores, although bringing many significant advantages, demand effort, selectivity
and engagement with their contents if they are to support strong connections to our
sense of personal experience and identity. This is true for all stages of our blended
memory process, including capture, storage, review and sharing. It is important
that we explore the ways in which we can use digital artefacts to connect us more
meaningfully to our episodic memory as well as to the semantic details of our
lives. Those practices and technologies that currently remove us from active
engagement with our experiences should be adapted to help us to strengthen our
connection with ourselves and the world around us.
1 Renos K. Papadopoulos, The Handbook of Jungian Psychology: Theory, Practice
and Applications (New York: Psychology Press, 2006), 63.
2 Nancy Van House, ‘Collocated Photo Sharing, Story-telling, and the Performance
of Self’, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 67 (12)(2009): 1078.
3 Ibid., 1084.
4 Endel Tulving, ‘Episodic and Semantic Memory.’ In Organization of Memory,
ed. Endel Tulving and Wayne Donaldson (New York: Academic Press, 1972), 385.
5 Martin A. Conway, ‘Memory and the Self’, Journal of Memory and Language,
53 (4)(2005), 596.
6 Eryn J. Newman and D. Stephen Lindsay, ‘False Memories!: What the Hell are
They For!?’, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23 (2009): 1114.
7 Demis Hassabis and Eleanor A. Maguire, ‘Deconstructing Episodic Memory with
Construction’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11 (7)(2007): 299.
8 Daniel L. Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and
Remembers (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 12-40.
9 Tulving, ‘Episodic and Semantic Memory’, 385.
10 Endel Tulving and Daniel L. Schacter, ‘Priming and Memory Systems.’ In
Neuroscience year: Supplement 2 to the Encyclopedia of Neuroscience, eds.
George Adelman and Barry H. Smith (Cambridge, MA: Birkhauser Boston, 1992),
11 Endel Tulving, ‘What is Episodic Memory?’, Current Directions in
Psychological Science, 2 (1993): 67.
12 Endel Tulving, ‘Episodic Memory: From Mind to Brain’. Annual Review of
Psychology, 53 (2002): 5.
13 Conway, ‘Memory and the Self’, 602-603.
14 Mark A. Wheeler, Donald T. Stuss and Endel Tulving, ‘Toward a Theory of
Episodic Memory’, Psychological Bulletin, 121 (3)(1997): 345.
15 Conway, ‘Memory and the Self’, 599.
16 Endel Tulving, Elements of Episodic Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
17 Wheeler et al., ‘Toward a Theory’, 349.
18 Tulving, ‘Episodic and Semantic Memory’, 400.
19 Conway, ‘Memory and the Self’, 595.
20 Newman and Lindsay, ‘False Memories’, 1116.
21 Ibid., 346.
22 Conway, ‘Memory and the Self’, 599.
23 Sophie E. Lind and Dermot M. Bowler, ‘Episodic Memory and Episodic Future
Thinking in Adults with Autism’, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 119 (4)(2010):
24 Donna R. Addis, et al., ‘Episodic Simulation of Future Events is Impaired in
Mild Alzheimer’s Disease’, Neuropsychologia, 47 (12)(2009): 2660-71.
25 Tulving, ‘Episodic and Semantic Memory’, 391.
26 Hassabis and Maguire, ‘Deconstructing Episodic Memory’, 299-300.
27 Daniel L. Schachter, et al., ‘Policy Forum: Studying Eyewitness Investigations
in the Field’, Law and Human Behavior, 32 (1)(2008): 3-5.
28 Ibid., 3.
29 Elizabeth F. Loftus, ‘Make-believe Memories’, The American Psychologist, 58
30 Daniel M. Bernstien and Elizabeth F. Loftus, ‘How to Tell if a Particular
Memory is True or False’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4 (4)(2009):
31 Ibid., 372.
32 Loftus, ‘Make-believe Memories’, 870.
33 Bernstien and Loftus, ‘How to Tell’, 373.
34 Conway, ‘Memory and the Self’, 595.
35 Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage: An
Inventory of Effects (New York: Bantam, 1967), 31-40.
36 Andy Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003),
37 Donald A. Norman, Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes
in the Age of the Machine (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1993), 43-
38 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 10-15.
40 Emma Berry, et al., ‘The Use of a Wearable Camera, Sensecam, as a Pictorial
Diary to Improve Autobiographical Memory in a Patient with Limbic Encephalitis:
A Preliminary Report’, Neuropsychological Rehabilitation, 17 (4-5)(2007): 583.
41 Asher Koriat, Morris Goldsmith and Ainat Pansky, ‘Toward a Psychology of
Memory Accuracy’, Annual Review of Psychology, 51 (2000), 488.
42 Barthes, Camera Lucida, 80.
43 Steve Whittaker, Ofer Bergman and Paul Clough, ‘Easy on that Trigger Dad: a
Study of Long Term Family Photo Retrieval’, Personal and Ubiquitous
Computing, 14 (1)(2010): 31.
44 Abigail Durrant, et al., ‘Home Curation versus Teenage Photography: Photo
Displays in the Family Home’, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies,
67 (12)(2009): 1006.
45 Michael Nunes, Saul Greenberg and Carman Neustaedter, ‘Sharing Digital
Photographs in the Home Through Physical Mementos, Souvenirs, and
Keepsakes.’ In Proceedings of the 7th ACM Conference on Designing Interactive
System, (New York: ACM, February 2008), 253, Viewed 2 August 2010,
46 Ibid., 252.
47 Durrant, et al., ‘Home Curation’, 1014-1017.
48 Nunes, Greenberg and Neustaedter, ‘Sharing Digital Photographs’, 254.
49 Whittaker, Bergman and Clough, ‘Easy on that Trigger’, 32.
50 Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,
(New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009), 68.
51 Ibid, 33.
52 Van House, ‘Collocated Photo Sharing’, 1073.
53 Schacter, Seven Sins of Memory, 93.
54 Stefan Carmien and Gerhard Fischer, ‘Tools for Living and Tools for Learning.’
In Proceedings of the HCI International Conference (HCII), (Las Vegas: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates, July 2005), Viewed 13 January 2011,
55 Elizabeth F. Loftus and William H. Calvin, ‘Memory's Future’, Psychology
Today, 34 (2)(2001), Viewed 25 March 2008,
56 Van House, ‘Collocated Photo Sharing’, 1082.
57 Nunes, Greenberg and Neustaedter, ‘Sharing Digital Photographs’, 254.
58 Nancy Van House, ‘Flickr and Public Image-Sharing : Distant Closeness and
Photo Exhibition.’ In Proceedings of CHI’07: Extended Abstracts on Human
Factors in Computing Systems, (San Jose: ACM, 2007), 2720.
59 Dawoud Bey, Class Pictures: Photographs by Dawoud Bey, (New York:
Aperture, 2007) cited in Jennie Yabroff, ‘Here's Looking At You, Kids’,
Newsweek, 15 March 2008, Viewed 22 March 2008,
60 Koriat, Goldsmith and Pansky, ‘Toward a Psychology of Memory Accuracy’,
61 Daniel L. Schacter and Donna R. Addis, ‘The Cognitive Neuroscience of
Constructive Memory: Remembering the Past and Imagining the Future’,
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B, Biological
Sciences, 362 (1481)(2007): 774.
62 Conway, ‘Memory and the Self’, 595.
63 Schacter, Seven Sins of Memory, 194.
64 Mayer-Schönberger, Delete, 12.
65 Schacter, Seven Sins of Memory, 193.
66 Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New
York: Routledge, 1982), 78.
67 ‘Don't Touch That Dial! A History of Media Technology Scares, from the
Printing Press to Facebook’, Vaughan Bell, Slate, Viewed 2 February 2011,
68 Norman, Things That Make Us Smart, 43.
69 David West, Aaron Quigley and Judy Kay, ‘MEMENTO: A Digital-physical
Scrapbook for Memory Sharing’, Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 11
70 Berry, et al., ‘Use of a Wearable Camera’, 582-601.
71 Matthew L. Lee and Anind K. Dey, ‘Providing Good Memory Cues for People
with Episodic Memory Impairment.’ In Proceedings of the 9th international ACM
SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility - Assets, (Tempe,
Arizona: ACM, October 2007), 136, Viewed 22 September 2011,
72 Katalin Pauly-Takacs, Chris J. Moulin and Edward J. Estlin, 'SenseCam as a
Rehabilitation Tool in a Child with Anterograde Amnesia ', Memory, 19 (7)(2011):
710, Viewed 5 August 2011,
73 Robyn Fivush and Katherine Nelson, ‘Culture and Language in the Emergence
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Psychological Society / APS, 15 (9)(2004): 576-577.
74 Mayer-Schonberger, Delete, 68-70.
75 Van House, ‘Collocated Photo Sharing’, 1078.
76 Norman, Things That Make Us Smart, 15-17.
77 Ibid., 16-17.
78 Van House, ‘Collocated Photo Sharing’, 1082-1084.
79 Siân E. Lindley, et al., ‘Reflecting on Oneself and on Others : Multiple
Perspectives via SenseCam’, CHI 2009 Workshop on Designing for Reflection on
Experience, (Boston: ACM, April 2009), 3, Viewed 10 January 2011,
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Multimedia, (Florence: ACM, 2010), 371-380, Viewed October 3 2011,
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Tim Fawns is e-Learning Coordinator in Clinical Psychology and tutor on the
MSc in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. Tim's interests include:
distributed cognition and memory, educational uses of technology, and online