On Forgetting

There’s an article in today’s Globe Ideas section that gets it right enough to be worth reading but wrong enough to be very annoying. Yes, the Internet + cheap storage + better information retrieval tools is changing the way people remember things and the way memory works, but it’s a total exaggeration to say that we now have some kind of perfect permanent record.

Seriously, try using the Internet Archive to find a project you worked on several years ago, and you may or may not find what you’re looking for. Google, too, delete things from the index constantly, and when it’s gone, you get the false feeling that it never existed. In fact, even when it’s working right, look at what Google remembers about you, and you’ll see that there is a whole lot of amnesia, or at best selective memory, without the benefit of any actual conscious selection.

Even personal digital memory management is fraught with peril. Compared to the population of the planet as a whole, I’m a pretty digitally savvy person, but even I have a hard time keeping my own personal files and photos from getting “forgotten” on my own equipment. I have a bunch of digital photos taken from 2003-2005 that are on a computer that died. I have the hard drive, and I have backups, but interia has kept me from actually putting them on my current machine. So I’m functionally no better than someone who doesn’t do backups at all, which I have to assume is a enormous chunk of the consumers who have almost all made the switch to digital from film in the last 5 years (which I’m basing on how hard it is to find film these days!).

Anyway, the point of all these examples is that forgetting is alive and well, it’s just different. But really, is it that different? When have we ever really had much conscious control over our memories? The difference is we used to live under the illusion that our social and technical tools for communal memory– libraries and archives and “newspapers of record” and the like– were an improvement over our faulty biological memories. Anybody who has thought about it or has taken a historiography class will know that that was always a fairly optimistic illusion. But now, that blind faith in the perfection of social machinery of memory gets the aura of technological perfection added to it, further entrenching an already fairly wrong and dangerous idea.

The ways that technology is changing memory is certainly interesting, and the Globe piece deserves to be a far longer meditation, perhaps the length of one of those huge New Yorker articles. As it is, it is a fairly loose assemblage of quotes and even a brief namecheck of the Borges story “Funes, his Memory,” which is mentioned and dropped so quickly that it’s a gratuitious reference, even if you know the story.