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Friends Reunited – interfere with nature at your peril

Synapse scrapheap

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The capacity to forget is one of the great qualities of the human brain.

We consign useless stuff - Latin, schoolfriends, failed relationships, old phone numbers, etcetera - to the synapse scrapheap, letting us concentrate that much more effectively on the people and the jobs and the tax demands which matter now.

In many ways, the brain is more efficient than the computer. Processing problems? Maybe. Retrieval problems? Always. Storage problems? Never. We discard memories all the time and yet still we construct a seamless narrative and maintain a wholeness which makes sense to ourselves and makes sense to others. Until Alzheimer's sets in.

At the same time, humans are able to maintain meaningful relationships with relatively few - perhaps 30 or 40, approximately the size of traditional hunter/gatherer communities - if pop anthropologist Desmond Morris has got his theories right. (One can see his point: we may talk to thousands via Internet chatrooms, have nodding acquaintance with hundreds more, but for how many of these do we grieve when they die?)

So why are so many pesky people trying to get us to re-remember so much useless stuff? In the early 21st century the television and the web site perform the same recall function for us as did the madeleine for Proust. On nostalgia TV, B-list presenters and comedians provide instant gratification through their astonishing powers of recall for the likes of "I Love 1977". This is mostly harmless.

More insidious are web site services such as Friendsreunited.co.uk, which brings back old school chums from the brain dump and, worse, provides the means to renew acquaintanceships.

Friendsreunited, is the great UK consumer dotcom success of 2001, with more than 2.5 million punters signed up. The company now wants to pull off the same trick in the workplace, with colleagues re-united. It will be an enormous success, but at what price to its subscribers?

Something else in your life has got to give if you make room for dimly-recalled friends (and enemies). Remember, you have forgotten these very nice people for a reason. It is the way you are wired. ®

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