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How We’ll Forget John Lennon

by Ahmed Kabil on February 25th, 02019

Nautilus recently interviewed Cesar A. Hidalgo, Director of the Collective Learning group at the MIT Media Lab, on how people and products become forgotten by culture. 

We began by looking at how popular something is today based on how long ago it became popular in the first place. The expectation is collective memory decays over time in a smooth pattern, that the more time goes by, the more things become forgotten. But what we found when we looked at cultural products—movies, songs, sports figures, patents, and science papers—was that decay is not smooth, but has two defined regimes. There’s the first regime in which the attention starts very high and the decay is really fast. Then there’s the second regime in which it has a much longer tail, when the decay is smoother, and the attention is less.

When we started to think about decay, we realized we could take two concepts from anthropology—“communicative memory” and “cultural memory.” Communicative memory arises from talking about things. Donald Trump is very much in our communicative memory now. You walk down the street and find people talking about Trump—Trump and tariffs, Trump and the trade war. But there’s going to be a point, 20 years in the future, in which he’s not going to be talked about everyday. He’s going to exit from communicative memory and be part of cultural memory. And that’s the memory we sustain through records. Although the average amount of years that something remains in communicative memory varies—athletes last longer than songs, movies, and science papers, sometimes for a couple decades—we found this same overall decay pattern in multiple cultural domains.