The great virtue of forgetting in the digital age


 It not only acts as a personal telephone directory but keeps track of important dates too. Add to this a personal computer and the hard disk acts as perfect memory prosthesis. Everything that one ever wants to recall is a click away, relieving human mind of the unsavoury task of remembering facts and events. Perfect digital memory may seem amazing but its hidden dimensions are no less disturbing.

Several cases of profound embarrassment, and even legal action, have been reported — many employees have been fired for mentioning on Facebook that their bosses/jobs were ‘boring.’ Uploaded for the fun of it, revealing pictures of innocent acts have devastated the lives of many young women. Digital memory didn’t spare Bill Clinton either. Some of his intimate e-mails would continue to embarrass him throughout his life.

All this because the internet remembers what humans would like to forget. Digital memory is an onslaught on the important role that forgetting has played throughout human history. It is now proven that forgetting is central to human experience whereas the difficulty of remembering is an implicit result of the second law of thermodynamics.
The trouble with digital memory, given its cheap storage and easy retrieval, is that it does not allow outdated information to go away.

For economists better information means efficient systems, but the question remains whether humans can live in peace without forgetting? At a societal level, such accessible digital memory aids in forecasting general trends and society wide development, enabling policy makers to adjust policies before problems have gotten out of hand. But on the other extreme, the failure to forget creates a panopticon crossbred with a time-travel machine.

Recent research concludes that forgetting plays a central role in human decision-making, letting us act in time, cognisant of, but not shackled by, past events. However, through perfect memory we may lose this fundamental human capacity — to live and act firmly in the present. The case of a 41-year-old Californian woman, AJ, is riveting. She lacks the biological gift of forgetting since she was 11, but incessant memory has agonising impact on her ability to decide, and live.

Most people have called what AJ has a gift, but for her it is a burden. In her recently published autobiography, AJ writes “Though people tend to think of forgetting as an affliction and are disturbed by the loss of so much memory as they age, I’ve come to understand that there is a real value to being able to forget a good deal about our lives.” For her, forgetting is not an annoying flaw but a life-saving advantage. Isn’t digital memory creating clones of AJ?

Giving a second chance

Forgetting not only comes naturally to humans, we also forget as a society. Societal forgetting gives individuals who have failed a second chance. In some instances, bankruptcies are forgotten as years pass. Even criminals have their convictions expunged from their records after sufficient time has passed. Through collective forgetting our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from the past in readjusting our behaviour.

The extensive documentation of our lives goes beyond the dilemma of ‘privacy’ though. Ever since Tim Berners-Lee invented the WorldWideWeb, there has been significant reduction of control over ‘our’ information. Others have gained ‘power’ from our loss, using information to influence the circumstances of our future interactions with the world. By placing eloquent personal details on social networking sites, we unknowingly empower others to use it.

Not without reason are companies like Google investing in maintaining hundreds of thousands of hard disks in huge server frames. It is reported that Google is operating half a million servers with up to a million hard disks, the cumulative storage capacity being in excess of 1,00,000 tetra bytes (million megabytes) of data. What Google might do with this information remains a mystery but it is clear that the information can be digitally altered as well as commercially traded.

Given the fact that the present generation has started preferring digital memory over human memory, the centralised control over information will have serious social, cultural, legal and political implications. Without doubt, digital technology is creating a new world order where forgetting will be an exception, and remembering the default. This is in contrast to how humans have evolved — wherein forgetting has been the norm and remembering the exception.

Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, author of ‘Delete: the virtue of forgetting in the digital age’ and director at the National University of Singapore, argues that the issue ought to be debated in public, and till such time the only way of getting out of the digital trap is by proposing an expiry date on information.

(The author is a development analyst with The Ecological Foundation, New Delhi)

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