Dory the Fish (and collective short-term memory loss)

Mark Cachia SJ shares his musings on Dory the fish (and collective short-term memory loss)...

Amongst those familiar with the animated film Finding Nemo, Dory is fondly remembered as a friendly, talkative and delightfully helpful blue fish - Pacific Regal Blue Tang is the exact name of the species! Alas, Dory the fish suffers from “short-term memory loss”. In other words, she listens attentively to the bits of information which come her way in her encounters with the other inhabitants of the vast ocean. But the next minute, she has absolutely no idea of what the other fish had just told her! 

Myself, I’m a big fan of Dory the fish. However, I’m slightly less enthusiastic about the fact that, when it comes to the way we receive and “consume” information, we seem to be suffering collectively from the same form of “short-term memory loss” which afflicted our dear Dory. 

This is especially so in the case of large-scale human tragedies. We listen to the horror stories of those who survived the tragedy or of those who lost some loved one; we watch assiduously the horrific images brought to us live from the affected  regions; like Dory the fish, we respond generously to the many cries of help which reach our ears… But after some days (if not hours), these pictures, stories and cries have been replaced by other pictures, stories and cries from the latest “breaking news”. And the tragedy, which during a short period of time seemed to attract so much of our attention and involve us emotionally, is quickly forgotten. 

Here’s a quick Dory memory test: A few days ago, we “celebrated” the third anniversary of a major natural disaster in a faraway country. Any guesses as to the country I’m referring to? If you haven’t got a clue about the answer, don’t worry, you’re probably in very good company. The answer is in fact Haiti. 

Three years ago, a massive earthquake struck near Port au Prince, the capital of Haiti, leaving more than 200,000 people dead and 300,000 others injured. This humanitarian crisis received extensive media coverage in all the major international networks, and the Internet was abuzz with text and video. Within days, fund-raising events were organized world-wide to help in the emergency and in the rebuilding process. Three years down the line, and there is hardly a word about Haiti in the mainstream news outlets. And yet, things are far from being back to normal: approximately 400,000 displaced people, for example, continue to live in camps1

My intention in scribbling these few words is not to make anyone feel “bad” or “guilty” regarding his or her poor memory. If anything, I believe that we, as a society, need to become more acutely aware of the effect fast paced, “ever-fresh”, “breaking-news” reporting is having on our collective memory. Traditional media outlets and internet sites are upping the ante when it comes to offering the “latest” and most exciting news coming from all over the world. Unfortunately, as we have seen, this comes at the cost of forgetting that behind sensational news stories there are the lives of persons whose needs are still unsatisfied long after the last journalist has left the field. 

The good news is that we can do something to counteract the onset of collective short-term memory loss. Internet has been celebrated for the amount of information it makes available at our fingertips. And rightly so!  Alternative information of the type which doesn’t make it to the headlines of our news bulletins, is available online for those who are interested enough in looking actively for it. In fact, we can either choose to be passive consumers of a never-ending stream of fast paced information with hardly any time to stop, assimilate and reflect on what we watch and hear. Or rather we may choose to put the latest technology to better use and actively look online for the information which will make us better citizens and help us contribute to a better world where no-one is left behind and… forgotten.  

With all due respect to Dory the fish, I choose the latter. 

Mark Cachia, SJ 

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