Thursday, April 29, 2010

Remembering to Forget

Depending on how long you've been with me on this blogging journey, you may remember a post I wrote back on December 17th of 2006 on the subject of forgetting...or, more accurately, not forgetting. That post was based on an interesting observation by Lance Morrow in his book Evil: An Investigation - in discussing the mutual, visceral hatreds of all sides in the wreckage of what was once Yugoslavia, he asked a simple, but profound question: what happens if no one ever forgets?

He was addressing the issue of lingering hatreds ... the endless nursing of deadly grudges and animosities that prevents people from making peace and moving on to a better future. Israelis and Palestinians in the Levant, Serbs, Croats and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, Armenians and Turks, blacks and whites, North Koreans and everyone else - what happens when we never forget past ills, real or imagined?

Yesterday I found a new take on this idea in this article by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger - "Remembering the Importance of Forgetting."

In this article, Mr Mayer-Schonberger discusses what he calls "the permanancy of the past in the present," the fact that nothing digitally saved ever really goes away. Every e-mail you ever wrote, every document you ever saved, every digital photo you ever took tends to last forever, because storage is so cheap and easy that the default option today is save rather than delete.

I know it's true. When I bought my first computer in 1988, it had the biggest hard drive you could get at the time: a staggering 20 MB. I remember saying to Agnes, "Wow...20 megabytes...we'll never fill it up!" Today, of course, it's not unusual to have a single photo or document that's 20 MB or larger. When the 250 gigabtyte hard drive on my Mac failed a few months ago, I replaced it with a 1 terabyte drive...and the local stores are selling 1.5 and 2 terabyte drives.

It's now easier just to save everything than to go to the trouble of figuring out what to delete. At the office, we get periodic stern messages from our IT managers warning us to archive or delete files because our shared storage drives are nearing capacity. For a project I'm now working on, I have at least seven different versions of the document stored...and there will no doubt be several others by the time all the coordination comments are adjudicated. Oh, and there are also many versions of the comment adjudication documents that I also have to save to show how we accommodated everyone's concerns.

It's worse at home. In the days of film cameras, we filled up a 12- or 24- or 36-shot roll of film, had it developed, threw away the bad pictures, and saved the best ones in photo albums and scrapbooks. Today's digital cameras allow us to take hundreds of pictures and only print the ones we decide we like...but there's no need to delete the others, because storage is cheap and easy. The picture file on my Mac is 17.83 gigabytes in size...and doesn't include all the pictures I've archived on CDs and DVDs, or the ones I haven't yet transferred over from my laptop to the new 1 terabyte drive on the Mac.

When Agnes and I vacationed in Alaska, I took over 1200 pictures in seven days. When we went to Mexico, I took thousands more. I have no idea how many pictures of the five grandchildren I have.

The default option is save ... up to the point where you no longer have any idea what you have, and what's really important. As Mr Mayer-Schonberg writes,

" is worth remembering that there is a lot of value in forgetting. Forgetting permits us to transcend details and generalize, to see the forest and not just the trees."

What if nobody ever forgets? What if we continually are able to dredge up information we'd forgotten was out there, that may no longer be valid but can be reinterpreted and taken out of context to create from the past a false image of the present? Mr Mayer-Schonberg writes that,

"...we are increasingly confronted with outdated information taken out of context, from anachronistic news stories to emotional e-mails and compromising pictures that we had long ago forgotten. For example, more and more employers are researching job applicants through Google and social-networking Web sites. There are already many cases of people being denied jobs or promotions because of what is unearthed. But these are reflections of a person’s past; they rarely provide accurate information about the present."

Can we put the digital toothpaste back in the tube (or, more accurately, squeeze more of it out)? Can we learn the need to delete the unnecessary as well as the need to save that which is truly important? Can we even tell the difference any more? What digital time bombs are waiting in our blogs and our Facebook pages, waiting to blow up in our faces?

It's worth thinking about.

We all know the old adage about digital documents: save early, save often. Perhaps now we need its companion adage: delete regularly, delete ruthlessly.

Because what if nobody ever forgets?

Have a good day. Delete something. More thoughts tomorrow.



Phfrankie Bondo said...

...very intersting food for thought...

Mike said...

I was going to comment on something but .......