The Benefits of Forgetting

Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger's picture

We dislike erasure, because it so obviously eliminates information, and reduces memory. As much as erasure of memory is problematic and discussions about who decides what is being erased and when are crucially important in a democratic society, we also must not overlook that our aversion to erasure and its consequences is an artefact of our cognitive abilities and their specific constraints: We want to hold on to memory, precisely because we forget.

But human forgetting (our own individual erasing of memory) is as much a feature of cognitive evolution as it is a bug. It lets us grow as individuals, and thereby focus on the present, rather than being tied to the past. As Borges, in his famous story “Funes” details so eloquently, only as we forget specifics, we can embrace generalizations – by disregarding the trees, the forest comes into view.

It’s Borges’ point that especially warrants pondering in our digital times. In Borges’ story, Funes has perfect memory; he recalls with precision every sentence he read from the classics of literature, but he can't make connections between them. He can’t see beyond the specifics, because to him every piece of memory is equally important, equally crucial, and thus equally memorable. (The moment he would start weighing his memories, he would put himself on the slippery slope of decay and eventual forgetting.)

But if everything is remembered equally, one can no longer differentiate between the important and the trivial. By erasing what our mind assumes to be insignificant, it creates space for the memories that seem to truly matter to us. Human forgetting thus not only enables remembering, but more importantly that memory becomes actionable. That because we remember what is crucial, we can act accordingly. Because we forget Aunt Mary’s birthday party five years ago, we remember our wedding day. Because we as a society largely forgot about the intense public feud between proponents of AC and DC electricity, we have space to remember the Holocaust.

The challenge of digital memory, therefore, is not only that digital memory, too, has lots of (often non-obvious) holes. Digital memory is problematic precisely because it is far more comprehensive, because it captures so much, and makes forgetting so hard. Much like Funes, our challenge in the age of ample digital memory is to see the forest, not just the trees; to be able to focus, to generalize and to abstract. Without forgetting, we run the risk of treating evolution theory and chemtrails as equals, and of drowning human enlightenment in the sea of fake news. That’s why we need to develop skills to weigh and depreciate digital memory, and to preserve the space in memory that we need in order to evolve, as humans as well as society.


Gavin Keeney's picture

Data is Not Memory

Viktor's remarks strike me as highly appropriate to the issue of "memory" (and therefore his perceptive recourse to Borges), or what constitutes memory in the age of Big Data. One of the issues with the Digital Humanities is that practices associated with this new super-discipline also coincide with practices at large in Cognitive Capitalism — and not all together pretty practices. Many of the unhandsome aspects of Big Data and Digital Culture are enhanced in the Digital Humanities, to the detriment of the Arts and Humanities. Data is not memory, even if data is increasingly seen as identity. I often have to revert to my own understanding of memory as a form of magical-realism to keep in perspective what constitutes literary, artistic, or humanistic research today. Whether Borges or Subcomandante Marcos, we can always find perceptive justifications for allowing elective lapses in memory to become productive of "revolutionary" change.

My own remarks in "Event, Fall — Harvest," as published here, have to do with the need to permit the agency of the artistic event to "play out," and to be archived and/or erased (withheld as mere commodity or artifact). This then suggests that we also have a huge responsibility for the formatting, dissemination, and archiving of works. Performance-based media, for example, is more or less an out-of-control phenomenon today. Yet what is NOT out of control, or what is generally missing, is a carefully crafted response to the explosion of platform cultures and the curation of works across works. There is no effective avant-garde today because Capital has nearly fully appropriated memory and identity. Total closure in this sense is not so far off. What needs to occur is an effective counter-movement to the conversion of everything to scaleable and marketable wares across digital platforms. Proponents of the Digital Humanities need to examine their own complicity in this impending disaster.