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Total Recall: Looking Back at 2004?
by Steve Portigal


It’s a common exercise in December to reflect back on the about-to-expire year, but it can be particularly challenging to identify the highlights in any category. Sure, cultural critics produce a raft of best-of lists, but how easy is it for the rest of us to look back?
We are all exposed to media (or information, or stories, or whatever term you'd like to use) at an enormous quantity and at a staggering rate, receiving content from TV, magazines, newspapers, advertising, blogs, music (radio, CDs, and MP3s), email and more. So, it shouldn't be hard for me to come up with some 2004 list of something, right? After all, I read two daily papers, more than 125 blog feeds, and about 10 magazines. I manage two mailing lists (one about the Rolling Stones and one about user research), participate in several others, as well as online discussion forums. I contribute to three different blogs. I’ve got a handle on the zeitgeist, right?
Wrong. I can’t remember a damn thing.

What the heck happened in 2004? I can remember the front-page stuff (crimes, war, politics) but little else. So I decided to do an experiment: I went to several online sources—BoingBoing, MetaFilter, and Core77, and skimmed their archives of two random 2004 months, February and April. I used these sites as triggers for stories that seemed cool when they broke but eluded my memory by the time December rolled around.

Just those two months amounted to over 150,000 words—and many, many stories. Most I recognized with a hockey-card collector's nod—"seen it; seen it; seen it;" some I didn’t notice at all at the time (or if I did notice, made so little impact that I didn’t recognize them months later); and a few still seemed new and cool. But a bunch of others stood out as important, had personal resonance for me, and seemed, somehow, to be representative of the year. So here we go:

February, 2004: April, 2004

These are stories about design, technology, culture, politics, media, and entertainment, all jammed together—stories that are probably familiar, but that most of us couldn’t have listed on our own without going back over some kind of archive. Anyone who took Psychology 101 (not me) will know that there are different types of memory. In this case we’re contrasting the memory of recall with the memory of recognition. We might not be able recall the names of all our high school teachers, but we could probably recognize most of them by name or photo. (Of course, there are some teachers who we’ve blocked from both recall and recognition due to excessive trauma—but I digress.)

Perhaps some of the items listed above provided a frisson of recognition, a surprise of a forgotten incident, the pleasure of an interesting experience from the past or a splash of perspective gained from just a few months' distance. And you could do your own lists, using the filter of what tripped your fancy or tickled your funny bone, and that list might provide some fun for others around you, but the parlor game would still hold: in this time of information overload, we seem to need the stimulus to have the response. Why, if we’re consuming so many cultural stories, is it so hard to recall them? Again, those Psych 101 students will know about the Recency Effect—our inclination to add weight to the more recent items. (Film studios plan release dates for award-likely movies based on this phenomenon; Sideways, released in the fall, seems to have won a conspicuous number of film awards.)

And the Recency Effect is markedly intense when we try to sum up the cultural experiences of a large period of time, say a year. We’ve spent that time primarily consuming information—not accumulating knowledge—the zeitgeist database rapidly building, each fresh item reshaping the slag heap, with the older pieces buried ever deeper below. Try it yourself: you can probably recall last month's cover of ID Magazine, but not the one before it.

The notion of consuming media, in a period of history that serves up so many choices, was recently addressed by Peter Merholz in his thoughts about "media obesity." (Indeed, when does anyone have the time to listen to 40G of music?) Of course, the tag-team of marketing and technology are adding ever-more options, increasing the challenge of ever-keeping up: If you enjoyed Seinfeld when it was originally on television, and then again when it was on reruns, you can now own it, so that you are able to watch at least once more. Oh, and then one more time after that with the commentary. So in addition to all the new media experiences being generated from this moment forward, there are re-released and enhanced versions of media experiences from last year, from 5 years ago, or from 30 years ago. We’re at a single point in time with a stream of media bearing steadily down upon us like a NASCAR final lap, concerned all the while that if we’re not careful, we’re going to get pounded by the reverse commute of yesterday’s content.

And if we consider design, specifically, we have to ask ourselves whether our contribution to this congestion is unique in any way, or simply more of the same. Designers are certainly in the consumption business, and while design both creates and reflects the cultural stories we’re considering here, the work is typically tangible. Sure, “the iPod” sits in the zeitgeist somewhere near “Janet Jackson’s breast,” but Lindsay Lohan’s iPod is a concrete, physical, experience-able, designed artifact—especially for Lindsay herself. And maybe "design stories"—or "personal experiences with design" rather—are a kind of story that is more memorable precisely because it's tied to an artifact. These kinds of stories may be richer, individualized, or recall-able on other levels (tactile, olfactory), making rapid and effective connections with memories, emotions and experiences in ways that that are palpable—indeed, literally physical—and have an upper hand in providing effective tour guides to both our collective and individual stories.

So here’s the corollary experiment: I was easily able to generate (mostly from recall, with little need for stimulus-recognition) a list of my own design-y experiences from this past year—experiences that affected me emotionally and intellectually (either positively or negatively):

It looks like design can impact an individual’s stories, pushing past the Recency Effect, lodging in whatever cranial fissures house the items available for recall. And what a nice thought that is, looking back at all we've been through and ahead at what's still to come. Dylan wrote, “She's an artist, she don't look back”, but he also wrote, "Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go."

Steve Portigal is a SF Bay Area consultant who uses ethnography and other research techniques to help his clients discover and act on new insights about how their customers work, play, shop, entertain, eat, and live their lives around products and services. He writes FreshMeat, a semi-regular email column about the relationships between business, culture, technology, products, and consumers. Check out his Musuem of Foreign Groceries.

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