forgetting in the digital age


I was excited to read this book and it began well. It’s an interesting observation that in externalising memory the net radically changes what was once an internal and selective process.  Borges short story Funes, the memorious sets the context; the tale of a character with perfect memory who cannot forget. Mayer-Schönberger begins ‘once we have perfect memory … we are no longer able to generalise and abstract, and so remain lost in the details of our past’ (p.12)

Memory is primarily a (re)constructive process of storage and recall and Mayer-Schönberger reminds us that ‘the effort needed for a narrative to be remembered acts a potent filtering mechanism’ (p.26). In the digital environment no effort is required; with relatively limitless storage and easy, immediate retrieval we no longer need to remember for ourselves. Increasingly events and information are stored without filter, evaluation or context and without the sort of meaning that pure metadata can provide. Data is not memory.

Delete then spends a lot of time discussing the relatively low cost of storage and retrieval and how this makes it easy to shift the default from forgetting to remembering. A few mundane case studies are provided to illustrate the pitfalls of revealing too much on the web. In chapter 5 Mayer-Schönberger suggests a number of ways we might program our technology to ‘forget’ or delete on a schedule, how we should have more power over our digital privacy to practising regular digital abstinence and engaging in ‘cognitive adjustment.’ This is where I found myself drifting. There’s already so much fascinating stuff published in this area. I’m less interested in the effects of digital culture on the citizens relationship to the state than I am in the effects upon our sense of self and identity.

Delete asks the questions without really exploring these issues far enough. We’re not just discussing how big players like google are storing our information for demographic and marketing purposes. How searching and browsing behaviour does not retrieve ‘memories’. It’s also revealing to reflect on how much we are engaging in our own ‘lifeblogging’. How full are our personal hard drives of documents and photos we will never realistically have the time to view, edit and honour? How much of this data are we sharing on the net? Deleting it from our facebook feed removes it from view but it may have already been shared and it can continue to be reproduced and remixed; that is (re)contextualised and (de)contextualised. What challenges do our digital public identities pose to our internal sense of self.

This morning I came upon this article in my The Browser feed ‘Autumn of the patriarch, forgetting to live’ by Aaron Bady (The New Inquirer, July 9, 2012) reflecting on Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. It seemed sadly serendipitous given the recent news that Gabriel García Márquez is now suffering from the memory loss that accompanies dementia.

Bady counsels ‘You are supposed to forget. You are supposed to get confused. You are supposed to blur different characters together, mix up timelines, be surprised to find that you’re not quite sure who is who. The last thing you are ever supposed to do is keep everything straight.

He continues, ‘To say that memory can deceive us is to perpetrate a dull cliche, however, and this is not the point. Instead, I would put it to you that the point is this: forgetfulness is what saves us, what gives us a second chance. Those who forget the past are not condemned to repeat it, but the reverse is true. Only those who forget the past will ever free themselves from it.

In the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude Aureliano Babilonia suddenly “became aware that he was unable to bear in his soul the crushing weight of so much past”

…  the great patriarch of the Buendía clan becomes old and begins to lose his faculties — when he begins to behave erratically, dangerously — his family ties him to a chestnut tree in the yard, and there he lives until he dies. But José Arcadio Buendía does not lose his memory. He loses to it. He starts to die when he begins to remember too much.

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