A post by Abe Burmeister set me thinking, again, about forgetting.
A friend said yesterday, 'After all, when we were young, at some point, we all did something, whatever it was — ran naked down some street, something …'. A photo taken then meant that we were caught forever, always running naked down that street, but it might have disappeared for much of its life, gathering dust in some drawer. Now that photo makes it (straight) to the web and to a kind of permanence and presence (even ubiquity) never before possible. The years pass, but the (by now distributed) photo doesn't.
Back in 2003, Fabio Sergio wrote about how,
… with everyone apparently fascinated with ways to remember I find myself toying with the idea of "technologies for forgetting" … All in all we are facing a future strung tight between the ideal, pacific world of the Memex, where man will be given "access to and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages", and one where Lenny Nero will feel at home, characterized by our collective inability to let go of our past.
I keep hoping (and working) for the first scenario to become our future, but recognize it will require active involvement from everyone, driven by ample awareness of what's at stake.
Over at Abstract Dynamics yesterday, Abe was saying something similar (in a piece about Gmail and Google's goal of "organizing all the world's information"):
Some information is meant to disappear, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Google it seems is not willing to make that distinction, although ironically they more than any other entity have the power to make things disappear. …
'Some information is meant to disappear', or be mediated. The memory of that time when as a kid you ran naked down some street can linger on in the telling, to be recalled years later, embellished and without its sting, a source of amusement, leg-pulling and amicable, entertaining embarrassment — your children delighted both at your discomfort and at discovering that once you were just like them. But a stark photo on the web, that's copied and posted again and again, sent to the senior partner of your new firm the day you're about to start working there, published in a newspaper years later …
Fabio imagines an angry argument between Mr A and Mr B, and imagines it twice — unfilmed and filmed. In the first case,
After a few days they hook up again, matters having cooled off and all, and they talk about the incident, re-living the discussion while trying to clear things up.The inherent fuzziness of their recollection helps in dumbing sharp edges down, as we have been proven to remember positive things better and negative things less clearly, and in the end they agree on a common explanation of the argument, thus creating the possibility for their relationship to evolve around the event. What is important here, though, is that what actually happened matters as much as what they mutually agreed happened. The final experience, mediated through their second conversation, has the opportunity to change from negative to positive, leaving clarification in place of contrast. All's well that ends well, right?
With filmed evidence of what actually happened,
… there will be simply less room to maneuver for both of them, less room to mediate experience into memory. Due to the timelessness quality of the digitally-produced artifacts, which potentially shine as new forever after they've been first created, Mr. A's descendants will still be able to hear (and judge) Mr. B's words and attitude. Take this one social magnitude level higher and what you get is a society unable to let go of its past's tiniest details.
Forgetting strikes me as something we need to pay a lot more attention to as we go forward with digital technology. It crops up in surprisingly different contexts (IT departments should check out danah boyd's post about teenagers and passwords — 'Technology is a bit too obsessed with remembering; there's a lot of value in forgetting').
And now I remember it, Anne Galloway wrote back in 2003 about forgetting:
We need to forget certain things to survive and stay together. What will happen if everything is tracked and recorded. How will we be able to forget? Will the owners and administrators of the data allow us to forget? For example, we have social and cultural practices (expectations and norms) in place that accommodate comments MADE IN PASSING ... what if certain comments are not allowed to pass?
And also this from 2004, on the Forgetting Machine:
So I was reminded of my Forgetting Machine. And that I am trying to build something that reminds us that not all things can or should be remembered. A tricky task, for sure! Part of this involves the creative corruption of information - along the lines of bricolage or remixing - as well as the selective and wholesale deletion of information.
Anne's paper (2006, I think), 'Collective remembering and the importance of forgetting: a critical design challenge', is available here (pdf). From the Abstract:
Memories are understood as relations of power through which we, as individuals and groups, actively negotiate and decide what can be recollected and what can be forgotten. And without being able to decide what we can remember and forget, we are effectively left without hope of becoming different people or creating different worlds.
That's absolutely my concern for the teenagers posting photos and stories about themselves and each other. I want for them (as I want for my own children) the possibility of their becoming different people, to have the chance to let experience grow into memory and to be allowed to let go, to forget.
Anne has a fine phrase in her paper, 'ubiquitous machines of merciless memory' — 'there is such a thing as too much memory … we need to forget in order to live'. Fabio Sergio asks: 'Are we heading towards an über-politically correct world, where we'll be forced to always ponder all of our words for fear of getting quoted 20 years from now … a future devoid of the room for doubt?'
This, then, is something we also need to be talking about in ICT: forgetting and remembering. I commend Anne's paper very warmly. It asks wise questions — 'What does it really mean if the memories held by our machines never change or get forgotten?' — and remembers that forgetting can be 'a kind of affirmation rather than … a denial. … the value of forgetting is its ability to interrupt time or escape temporal continuity, and thus (re)imagine human experience'. Her paper challenges designers to remember all this, too, and to design accordingly and wisely.