"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Virtues of Forgetting

As part of a long-term project of thinking about the ecclesiological, ecumenical, and ultimately soteriological implications of forgetting, which I have described in various posts you may view here, I picked up Viktor Mayer-Schönberger's book Delete: the Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. It is a sobering assessment of the problems of a digital era in which people (e.g., Andrew Feldmar) could run into all sorts of problems from employers and governments (inter alia) relying on digitized "memories" of events in our past that, without context, may look (in the eyes of densely stupid bureaucrats, inter alia) sufficiently disqualifying to entering countries or companies alike.

Mayer-Schönberger documents the rise of long-term collective memory through the invention of language, and then books, especially after the invention of the printing press. But nothing has prepared us for the digital revolution in which the sheer quantity of information we can retain is utterly overwhelming, and becoming more so each year as the expense and effort in such retention becomes technically cheaper and easier.

He rightly issues a caution against putting too much faith in digital sources to do the remembering for us if we assume that such sources are incorrupt and will remain incorruptible. Even in an earlier, technically primitive era, it was still possible for the Trotskys of this world and others who had fallen into disfavor with the current regime to be 'erased' from pictures, articles, and entire editions of, say, the Soviet Encyclopedia. And as everyone knows today, it is possible to be constantly editing and deleting things from, e.g., Wikipedia. So digital "memory" can be just as malleable as human memory, though on a far wider and therefore much more dangerous scale.

In the end, the author proposes a number of suggestions, before focusing on in-built expiration dates for most on-line information--Amazon's "suggestions" of additional things we might like to buy, e.g., or cookies from retailers and search engines stored on our browsers. Endless forgetting is not the boon some may glibly assume, and contains real dangers. Mayer-Schönberger rightly reminds us of the virtues to be found in forgetting.

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