In an era when nearly everything we do is recorded, we have less control over what we choose to remember, and perhaps more crucially, what to forget.
Most of us do not remember what we read online or wrote on March 9, 2011, or what clothes we wore that day. We don’t remember the phone calls we made or how long we talked, or whether we went to the grocery store, and if so, what we purchased there. But all of that information is archived, and if a pressing enough need were to arise, our activities on that day could be reconstructed in nearly complete detail.
Of course, the perils of an online world that remembers everything are well recognized. As Jeffrey Rosen wrote in a 2010 New York Times magazine article, “the worst thing you’ve done is often the first thing everyone knows about you.”
But there is another, more subtle aspect to the inexorable growth of digital archives that store not only the worst things we have done, but everything we have done. To the extent that the past helps define us, it does so not only in terms of our greatest public triumphs and failures, but also through the mundane actions and daily experiences that in the aggregate can be far more important.
In earlier times, those actions and experiences comprised a personal history accessible only to a small circle of people, and of which we were the main custodians. We were largely free to choose what to remember, and perhaps more crucially, what to forget.
Today, however, our personal history lies scattered throughout cyberspace. And, as illustrated by Facebook’s late-January decision to require all users to switch to Timeline, which will make it much easier to view the entire history of posts made on the site, we often have less control over that information than we might like to believe.
The prospect that companies to which we have entrusted our data can unilaterally choose to elevate the visibility of actions we took years in the past undermines an option to forget that has long been viewed by philosophers, psychiatrists, psychologists, and writers as critical to the human experience. Nietzsche, for example, described forgetting as a form of active repression undertaken to preserve “psychic order, repose, and etiquette.” In the 1942 story “Funes, the Memorious,” Jorge Luis Borges writes of a man who is cursed with the burden of remembering everything that happens to him. “To think,” writes the narrator in Funes, “is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.”
What does it mean that we “lose the option to forget.” This is the bargain we as individuals AND businesses make with corporate archivists like Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Mindfulness (and sound policy) are important in this framework of [lack of] control.