Most of us have problems with remembering things at time. Memory problems usually go one way – we can’t remember things. Drastic loss of memory has been a theme of many books (I can, just about, remember Asimov’s Currents of Space as being the first with this theme that I read) and movies (the Bourne series, I understand, not having seen any of them, has this theme). The lack of incentive for memorisation has been lamented over thousands of years, from the increasing use of printed books reducing the need for the ‘memory arts’ of the ancient world, which lasted well into the Renaissance, to current laments about the disappearance of ‘pub quiz style’ general knowledge in the face of Google and Wikipedia.
Remembering always seems to be the problem. The idea that forgetting might also be good at times has been slower to catch on. Some analogy, I suppose, to the way in which the need to filter incoming information to avoid overload has, until recently, been much less recognised than the need to find good information in the first place. Deliberate forgetting has in some cases been recognised as a good thing, and again science fiction has led the way. Spock used his Vulcan mental powers on occasion to make others forget, while the characters of Greg Bear’s Eon series had ‘good forgetings’ as birthday presents.
The idea seems now to be creeping into information management. James Harkin, in an article in the London Sunday Times, points up a number of horror stories about how old material on social networking sites came back to haunt its originators. He gives this as the most dramatic example of how digital information can remain active indefinitely, not merely cluttering up our ever-expanding storage systems and confusing our not-expanding-at-all brains, but doing real harm.
A possible solution is proposed by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger in a new book Delete: the virtue of forgetting in the digital age. He argues for a mode of ‘digital forgetting’, by setting expiry dates on each and every digital document, photograph, message, etc. that we create. This will he suggests. make our digital memories more like their brainware equivalents.
Or perhaps we should take a more literary view of things, and look to a new era of memory arts, closely associated with poetry, as David Barber nicely suggests, in his essay Does Memory have a Future.
Whichever way it turns out, I think that we will see ideas of memory, and forgetting, as gaining a new importance as the digital transition engulfs us. Who knows, perhaps a resourceful professor, looking for a new course to market, will come up with a degree in forgetfulness.