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Bianca Bosker

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In Defense Of Forgetting To Forget

Posted: 11/29/2012 4:43 pm

One of my dearest childhood friends is a notorious flake, so I wasn't surprised when, a few weeks ago, she emailed on the day of my birthday dinner to say she wouldn't make it ("sore throat").

Usually, I let it slide. We're both busy, and we've been friends for nearly two decades. But this time, though I'm not proud to admit it, I stewed. I had a vague memory of her using a similar excuse to cancel on the same event a year before -- something I confirmed after just a few seconds with my smartphone and my SMS history. In less than a minute, I'd summoned what I considered compelling evidence of a pattern of poor behavior, proof I wasn't crazy for being upset, and a big fat hint that I expected an apology.

I replied to her email with my own with a screenshot of our 2011 text message exchange: she'd texted me to bail on my birthday dinner just a few hours before she was due at my apartment.

Was my response petty? Yes. Juvenile? Yes. Rude? Absolutely.

Yet it's one that will only become more common thanks to our tech-enabled self-surveillance state, and it's a reaction that underscores the new, growing fear that our memories are becoming too perfect, to the detriment of personal relationships. We're all for tech tools that rewire our brains to make us more efficient learning-working-socializing machines, and yet the idea of extending our memories making people panic. The end of forgetting doesn't have to mean the end of forgiving.

Increasingly, it looks like forgetfulness may soon go the way of the Walkman. Swedish startup Memoto is creating a wearable lifelogging camera that will snap a photo every thirty seconds. One scientist has imagined a human memory chip that would offer people a "complete collection of all their life's memories." Samsung has patented a "life diary" that will auto-generate entries using your phone. We've come a long way since letters in a shoebox, and with each click or correspondence, we generate a trail of evidence that lasts forever, never fades and can be instantly recalled.

We've extended this detailed documentation beyond ourselves to others, and we can log every digital interaction we've ever had with another person and summon it instantly. Got a sense your husband has been disrespectful to your mother? If he emailed her, you can prove it.

In lockstep with their admonitions that Google will make us forgetful, experts are warning about the deleterious effects of too much memory. They caution us that the present will be overshadowed by our past, and we'll hold permanent grudges or be able to easily summon the sting from a decade-old insult. Rather than let memories fade away, we'll be haunted by them.

"To confront someone else with their past is to basically shackle them to who they were in the past rather than to let them evolve," said Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. "If the past is always so present, then we will begin to believe the digital artifacts more than our own human recollection ... The problem with all the digital stuff we have is there's no guarantee that it's authentic."

These warnings all have merit: as Nietzsche observed, "A poet could say that God had stationed forgetfulness as a guardian at the door to the temple of human dignity." And to Mayer-Schönberger's point, I still haven't reconciled with my friend.

But truth be told, though I felt like a jerk for actually looking up the text message and sending it, I was also relieved to find out I wasn't totally wrong for feeling wronged. I also hope that the note might ensure we can focus on our friendship instead of arguing over who remembered what which way. It's worth considering the ways having a flawless memory -- which appears increasingly inevitable -- may actually benefit some relationships.

Thanks to our ever-expanding permanent record, we'll be able to fact check our tiffs and truthsquad our squabbles. Instead of just Googling stats to bolster an argument about politics or sports at the dinner table, we'll be Googling each other to reference an email from 2008 or an Instagram from 2012. There's an element to that that sounds totally nightmarish -- Who hasn't said something they'd regret? Will we just antagonize each other by rehashing each other's mistakes? -- but it may also make us more honest and less squirrely with our excuses.

The accusation "you never take me anywhere nice" can be countered by calling up a Foursquare check-in at Per Se, while "you never call my mother" can be answered with a scroll through an iPhone's call log. We crave facts about most matters, so why is it we're so worried about what they'll do to personal relationships?

The same documentation that exacerbates hurt feelings can also relieve them. My fear that my childhood friend couldn't be bothered to come see me might just have easily been assuaged if my inbox search had turned up a kind note, or proven my "you've canceled twice now" theory wrong.

Our chat logs and email records can be a fix for a faulty, selective memory that leads to repeat mistakes and unjustified hostility (let's not forget: holding a grudge wasn't invented after the iPhone). That obnoxious email from an incompetent colleague can come to look like a perfectly fair -- and kindly put -- suggestion when it's been read over again after being put aside. Likewise, the cruel text from an ex you justified in the moment might look as mean as it really is when you pick up the phone to text him or her again -- and spare you another stint in a bad relationship.

Most importantly, given technology's steady and seemingly unstoppable march toward creating superhumans, we should focus more on training ourselves to forgive than on forcing ourselves to forget.

We've reached a point where we marvel at our web-fueled ability to make politicians' gaffes go viral or an ill-advised Facebook photo's ability to damn someone's career, but we haven't yet figured out how to pardon each other in an age when nothing gets forgotten or goes unseen. Perhaps we'll have to wait until the first politicians from the Facebook generation begin campaigning -- with their every sext, booty call gchat convo, or fratboy prank documented for eternity -- to declare an truce on bringing up incriminating information.

Memoto CEO Martin Kallström, the creator of the lifelogging camera currently in production, predicts perfect memory will actually lead to the "era of forgiving" (an argument Mayer-Schönberger counters is "highly idealistic and terribly naïve").

Rather than forgive because of human frailty that leads to a faulty memory, we'll forgive actively, making a conscious effort to put an event aside and move forward with a relationship, argues Kallström.

"Technology will usher in a new era where people have to get good at forgiving and forgetting," said Kallström. "And they're doing so by choice rather than just forgetting things."

Forget "forgive and forget." It's time we got used to "look it up and let it go."

Has the constant access to an archive of information -- digital photos, emails, texts and so forth -- made you more prone to being adversarial? How has it shaped your ability to forgive? Weigh in below or send me a tweet at @BBosker.

 

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