From World War II to the financial crisis, our institutional memory is fading fast
The young contestants on Lord Sugar’s reality TV show The Apprentice sparked outrage last week.
They appeared to have virtually no knowledge about the Second World War.
The online clips of the sequence capture to perfection their expressions of bovine outrage at even being expected to know such an esoteric thing as how long the War lasted. For many viewers, it was a powerful argument for an immediate raising of the voting age to at least 35.
Trying to be fair, I reflected on my own knowledge of the Boer War. The gap between that and my birth is not that much more than the one between World War II and Lord Sugar’s wannabes.
I have to confess that it is very sketchy. I know it was around 1900. The Boers nearly pulled off a shock victory, but our boys pipped them in extra time. And there was a siege at somewhere called Mafeking.
That said, the Second World War is of far more historic significance than Britain’s colonial skirmishes. The participants in The Apprentice might, one would think, be expected to know more about it.
Their ignorance reflects a more general trend towards what can be described as a shortening of cultural memory.
This can be seen in many seemingly unrelated ways.
Baby names, for example, are important indicators of culture. The example may seem slightly frivolous but, as the American polymath Stephen Pinker has written, the choice of name “encapsulates the great contradiction in human life: between the desire to fit in and the desire to be unique”.
Whenever there is a royal birth in the UK, the name given to the new baby enjoys a surge in popularity as people copy what is fashionable. But there is also the desire to give your baby a distinctive name.
In the twenty-first century, the turnover in popularity of names has increased dramatically. It was steady for almost the whole of the twentieth century – once a name had made it into the top 10, say, it tended to stay there a long time. But the “churn” is now running at a rate nearly 10 times greater.
The outcomes of behaviour on the internet provide a more obvious example. At any point in time, the most popular memes on Twitter or the most viewed videos on YouTube are often millions of times more popular than the average. But their popularity is ephemeral.
In what many would regard as far more serious areas of economic activity, away from popular culture, this shortening of collective memory may have disturbing consequences for all of us.
In financial markets, for example, there is a traditional tale that a crisis happens precisely when the institutional memory of the last crisis has faded. But if traders and decision-makers develop shortened memories, crises could become more frequent.
Already bodies such as the International Monetary Fund are warning about the build-up of private sector debt, even though it is scarcely a decade since such debt precipitated the global financial crisis.
The apparent ignorance of The Apprentice candidates offers a warning to us all.