“Until recently, the fact that remembering has always been at least a little bit harder than forgetting helped us humans avoid the fundamental question of whether we would like to remember everything forever if we could. Not anymore.”
– Viktor Mayer-Schönberger
Some things we want to remember (I’m all about memorizing scripture to help me love God more). And some things we need to remember (ahem, anniversaries, birthdays, etc.).
But other things, why bother? How much do you remember about what you ate for lunch in 3rd grade? About emails you wrote on May 29, 2010? About where you parked at Kroger three visits ago?
Some things we don’t try to remember because we either want to forget (I’d still love to erase previews of Psycho from my memory); or we know it’s not necessary because it’s irrelevant info; or we’re praying others will forget even if we don’t (think back to any arguments you’ve had).
With human memory, we forget far more than we remember. Overall, that’s probably a good thing. Who wants to remember everything they’ve ever seen, heard, or experienced? It’s considered extremely burdensome by those who can.
But in our digital world? Everything is changing. . . .
“Since the beginning of time, for us humans, forgetting has been the norm and remembering the exception. Because of digital technology and global networks, however, this balance has shifted. Today, with the help of widespread technology, forgetting has become the exception, and remembering the default.”
– Viktor Mayer-Schönberger
Therein lies a multitude of new and interesting dilemmas as I read recently in Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.
Technological changes in photography is an example that author Viktor Mayer-Schönberger uses in the book.
Back in the olden days, it was expensive to create long-term memories with photographs. I remember taking pictures sparingly with my first few film cameras because a cannister of film wasn’t cheap and neither was the cost of developing.
But now? I take multitudes of shots with a digital camera, download every one to my laptop, then transfer them all to an external hard drive. It’s easier to keep all than pick through and save only favorites. And I love that (although now I’m far more behind in actually printing any photos).
“Assuming it takes only three seconds for a person to look at an image and decide whether to preserve it or not, and that she values her own time at a current average wage, the ‘cost’ of the time alone that it takes to decide exceeds the cost of storage (including having a second copy on a backup device). With such an abundance of cheap storage, it is simply no longer economical to even decide whether to remember or forget. Forgetting—the three seconds it takes to choose—has become too expensive for people to use.”
Mayer-Schönberger says the four main reasons why remembering is now the norm instead of the exception are digitization, cheap storage, easy retrieval, and global reach. He explains each in detail in the book.
He says what’s truly at stake, though, is power and time.
Are you comfortable with Google having records of every search term you’ve ever used? What about your distant past becoming your living present with one click on an online search? In real life, memories fade and we go on with our lives (what woman would ever bear a second child otherwise?), but online, memories are forever fresh.
Digital memory isn’t all bad, of course. The benefits have been culturally-transforming and overwhelmingly advantageous. But the unique problems it presents are becoming more into focus. Saving everything becomes burdensome. (How many old emails do you still have? Ever try to sort through bookmarks you’ve saved on your browser?) Digital memory locks everything in, often without the benefit of context and definitely without the luxury of grace.
The author suggests some possible solutions, including voluntarily limiting what you save digitally; passing more legislation on what can be saved in the public domain and by private corporations; embedding expiration dates (of sorts) on digital information.
Because ultimately, “the value of information is not timeless.” Most information has a lifespan, and we don’t need to forget that.
“We may realize what humans have at least implicitly grasped for millennia: that good information is preferable to copious information.”
Who gets to decide what’s remembered and what’s forgotten? At this point, it’s still under discussion in the digital world, and will continue to be for awhile yet. Court cases keep popping up about “the right to be forgotten.”
Who could have imagined? This article stated it clearly for me in the May 26, 2014, issue of Time:
“To the list of things that our ancestors would have found utterly unintelligible about the way we live now we can add, right next to the epidemic of obesity, its informational equivalent: an epidemic of memory.”
– Lev Grossman
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I’m still not totally comfortable with even God remembering everything about me (and he’s pure love!); I sure don’t want the rest of the world to. How about you? Would you like to remember everything if you could?
- My reading list for June ’14
- On the blog–May 2014