Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

In "Sketches Among The Ruins of My Mind", Philip José Farmer depicts a nightmare scenario in which an object suddenly appears in our skies, and proceeds to remove everyone's memories, four days at a time. Gradually, people regress through their chronological age, ending up drooling like babies, and forgetting all their relationships and skills. As people realise what is happening, they resort to leaving themselves notes and tape recordings by which to tell or remind themselves, on waking up in the morning, what's been going on.

That's an extreme description of what might happen if we were unable, unaided, to remember anything about the last three days, but humankind has always tried to find ways of remembering.

John Mack, in "The Museum of the Mind", looks at how different people in different times and places have used artefacts such as paintings and sculptures to help them remember, a story he tells through the collections in the British Museum.

We have always been afraid of forgetting which, as Viktor Mayer-Schönberger has pointed out in a recent lecture, is the "default setting" for human beings. However, we have now entered a digital age in which this balance between remembering and forgetting has been reversed. In other words, the default setting is now remembering, and we as a society have perfect memory.

A good thing? In some respects, of course; but Mayer-Schönberger fears that we have not fully considered the negative implications of perfect memory.

One of the sources he draws upon is the Argentinian writer, Borges. In “Funes, The Memorious”, Borges provides us with a startlingly accurate insight into what a curse perfect memory would be for an individual person. “Startlingly accurate”? Yes, because decades after he wrote this we have discovered a handful of people in the world who have this rare ability affliction.

And the societal perspective on this?

As Mayer-Schönberger points out, a society that never forgets, may stop forgiving. That unfortunate photo of yourself, or that article you wrote whilst a student, may come back to haunt you years, even decades, later.

Such a situation leads people to self-censor, not just in the here and now, but with one eye on the future. It reminds me of a science fiction story I read in which crime was effectively eradicated because the police used cameras that could go back in time to record actual events instead of people's recollections of them. The story centred on one man's attempt to commit the perfect murder: he had to engineer the situation to cause his victim to have a fatal heart attack, so that when the inevitable cameras came, they would record that he had caused the person no physical harm.

Mayer-Schönberger's suggestion is that we should remember to forget. Technology can help us by prompting us to specify expiration dates for the data we store.

It was a fascinating talk, which you can listen to. I am now in the process of reading his book, 'Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age', and will review it due course.

In the meantime, perhaps this is a topic that would make for a good discussion in ICT and even Citizenship lessons.

The books mentioned in this article are featured on my Amazon page, where they can be purchased, thereby providing me with a (very) modest additional income. Also mentioned on the page are Fictions, a collection of short stories by Borges that includes Funes, The Memorious. Although nothing to do with ICT in education as such, these stories make you think. And one, The Library of Babel, really does have echoes in the Web 2.0 world, as I described in this article about collaboration.

Also featured is Google Bomb, which covers similar ground, but looked at through the lens of online defamation and cyber-attacks.

Although I have yet to review them, I will say now that these books deserve a central place in your educational technology library.