Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

We are meant to forget

As you sit across the dinner table basking in the warmth of family during this holiday season, most likely you will not remember the vicious comment your Aunt Jennifer made about you a few years back. You won't dwell on Uncle Julio's unkind reference to your drinking last Christmas or what cousin Duwan said about your girlfriend during that dreadful vacation at the shore.

At family holidays, we tend to embrace our relatives even after months or years of not having seen one another, regardless of the quarrels we have had in the past. We may chalk up our generous forgiveness to the festive spirit of the season, but the real reason has nothing to do with that.

It is because of how we humans remember — and forget.

Cognitive experts tell us that forgetting is fundamental to how we make sense of the world. Forgetting helps us survive, by making sure we don't dwell in the past. In the digital age, that mechanism of our humanity is under threat.

We all hate when we can't remember something. We think of it as a bug of the human mind. We don't realize that by discarding most of the avalanche of details that our senses are bombarded with every day, as well as past wounds, our brain helps us focus on the important things; it lets us see the forest rather than just the trees. We may learn from our failures, but thankfully we also easily forget them.

Human memories are not fixed, they are reconstructed. We remember more easily what we remember often. More important, we tend to forget memories that don't fit into our current world vision; our brains discard them as no longer important. That way, we forgive one another (and ourselves) for past transgressions. Thus, our memories of most past experiences wither. Of course, that process takes years, as more and more details dwindle in our minds.

Forgetting misdeeds that we deem no longer relevant is a powerful mechanism. The best part of it is that it's built into us. We don't have to do anything consciously to make it happen. But it also means that operation is thwarted in a world of comprehensive memory, a world in which we are constantly reminded of our past.

Our ever-improving digital tools record billions of Facebook messages and more than 300,000,000 tweets every day — not to mention our private email accounts, with their photos and videos. Logging our lives is becoming the norm. Having a comprehensive digital memory at our disposal is the default.

Many worry about what this does to privacy. I am more troubled about what it does to holiday spirit — the warmth and joy that may be lost when we are reminded of every mistake, every quarrel, every disagreement.

Consider the following scenario: Some years back, Jane was accused by her cousin John of neglecting a sick family member whom she was on her way to visit. The accusation wasn't entirely fair; Jane had gotten caught in traffic and thus her ill aunt was alone for an hour.

Not believing Jane's explanation, John sent her a nasty email saying she did not care enough for the family. The email infuriated Jane, but as time passed the memory of the incident faded and more recent and pleasant memories replaced the bad one. But suppose, while searching for driving directions to this year's family gathering, Jane stumbles over John's email just as she is about to see him. With her anger revived by rereading the old message, will she be able to face him without the recalled memory biasing her judgment?

With comprehensive digital memories, forgetting one another's offenses becomes more difficult. Through our digital tools we'll be alerted to all that we thought we had forgotten. This will make it harder for us to forgive.

In one of his short stories, the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges describes a young man who after an accident can no longer forget. He can remember perfectly all the books he has read, but he has been unable to learn anything from them, because learning involves the distilling of abstract thought from detailed memories, after which the latter fade away. Thus it, too, necessitates forgetting.

In future holiday seasons, our data glasses might identify family members through facial recognition and, within a split second, display old emails, images, tweets and posts, reminding us in excruciating detail of their (and our) past shortcomings.

Some say that we'll adapt by disregarding these digital memories. But it is naive to think that if so directly reminded of earlier quarrels, we'll be able to put the revived memory aside. Our brain is trained to remember events we thought we had forgotten when given an external stimulus. Automatically disregarding revived memories is as hard as deliberately forgetting things — we can't do it.

We need to appreciate and preserve forgetting as a feature of humanity. To do so may require us to adapt our digital tools. Unlike our brains, they can easily be rewired. With help from companies that design online tools, we could let tweets and Facebook comments expire over time. We could choose photos in our digital libraries we want to remember, and the emails we hold dear, as we let the rest slowly disappear, thus giving us a renewed and much-needed chance to forget.

This would preserve in the digital age our ability to grow, to learn and to forgive. And it would give us a better shot at having a rancor-free family holiday season. That alone would be worth it.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, the author of "Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age," is a professor of Internet governance and regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute.

© 2012 Washington Post

We are meant to forget 01/04/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 4, 2013 9:24am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Washington Post.

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. After fraught debate, Trump to disclose new Afghanistan plan


    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will unveil his updated Afghanistan policy Monday night in a rare, prime-time address to a nation that broadly shares his pessimism about American involvement in the 16-year conflict. Although he may send a few thousand more troops, there are no signs of a major shift in …

    U.S. soldiers patrol the perimeter of a weapons cache near the U.S. military base in Bagram, Afghanistan in 2003. Sixteen years of U.S. warfare in Afghanistan have left the insurgents as strong as ever and the nation's future precarious. Facing a quagmire, President Donald Trump on Monday will outline his strategy for a country that has historically snared great powers and defied easy solutions.  [Associated Press (2003)]
  2. Trial begins for man accused of threatening to kill Tampa federal judge


    TAMPA — Jason Jerome Springer was in jail awaiting trial on a firearms charge when he heard inmates talking about a case that had made the news.

    Jason Jerome Springer, 39, is accused of threatening to kill a U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, according to a federal indictment.  |Hernando County Sheriff's Office photo]
  3. Editorial: Tampa Electric customers should not pay for utility's fatal misjudgments


    There will be financial fallout from the terrible miscalculations that resulted in five workers being killed in June at Tampa Electric's Big Bend Power Station. State and federal regulators should ensure those costs are borne by the company's shareholders, not its customers. Monetary considerations will not begin to …

    LUIS SANTANA   |   Times
There will be financial fallout from the terrible miscalculations that resulted in five workers being killed in June at Tampa Electric's Big Bend Power Station. State and federal regulators should ensure those costs are borne by the company's shareholders, not its customers.
  4. Superior Uniform acquires Los Angeles-based PublicIdentity


    SEMINOLE — A subsidiary of Seminole-based Superior Uniform Group has acquired Los Angeles-based branded merchandise company PublicIdentity Inc.

    Superior Uniform Group CEO Michael Benstock
[Courtesy of Superior Uniform Group]
  5. Money is the issue as Hillsborough strains to fix school air conditioners


    TAMPA — With more than 200 repair requests tumbling in every day, school officials in Hillsborough County are broadening their circle of air conditioning mechanics as they struggle to control a debilitating cycle of breakdowns and sweltering classrooms.

    Hillsborough school officials want to expand the number of contractors who work on broken school air conditioning systems. But it all gets rolled into a workload that has increased by 40 percent since 2011. "With no increase in budget, no increase in equipment and no increase in manpower, and as the equipment gets older and needs more maintenance, this is going to continue to grow," said Robert Weggman, general manager of maintenance." [