Friday, January 1, 2010


Dante submerged in the River Lethe, by Gustave Dore: illustration from The Purgatorio

A new year is often a time for reflection as well as an opportunity to cast off bad memories. I’ve mentioned Gordon Bell (MyLifeBits) who has stored as much of his life as possible, every scrap of evidence, hoping to facilitate a reconstruction of his life – an almost-accurate memory aided by technology. Viktor Mayer-Schoneberger examines the attempt at “perfect remembering” in his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Mayer-Schoneberger is considerably alarmist in his focus, describing the dangers of permanent digital memory, citing cases of particular online behaviors that come back to haunt professional and personal lives. He suggests that self-destruct dates be imposed on digital records. This isn’t a new idea; in fact, it’s one of the main functions in records and archival management.

courtesy of Marvel Comics

Is there a value in forgetting? “Within the abyss Lethe, measureless in sweep, glides smoothly on with placid stream, and takes away our cares.” (Seneca, Hercules Ferens) In Hades, the River Lethe offered the power of oblivion, allowing certain souls to forget all they had experienced in their lives, all the mistakes, all the pain. Writes Daniel Schacter, "Memory, for all that it does for us every day...for all the feats that can sometimes amaze us, can also be a troublemaker...” Our brain reconfigures memory, based on our present preferences and needs, affected by bias, absent-mindedness and misattribution.

Archivists spend years cataloging photographs and documents so that they are robustly described and better comprehended. When we reexamine the digital record of a life lived online, we – as spectators - likely take these records out of context. A photo of a group of women with cups in their hands may have little to no information associated with it – no time, no place, no description, so the spectator fills in the blanks (those cups are filled with beer, they sure look wasted!), making up a story to go along with the bits and pieces they observe. It’s easy to make assumptions, isn’t it? In her book, On Photography, Susan Sontag describes Marcel Proust’s attitude towards photographs – he considers them “a synonym for a shallow, too exclusively visual, merely voluntary relation to the past...whose yield is insignificant compared with the deep discoveries to be made responding to cues given by all the senses – the technique he called ‘involuntary memory’.”Mayer-Schonenberger panics about evidence left behind – I don’t doubt there are risks – but, like our own memory can be altered, so can the digital record.

The Virtue of Forgetting – interview with the author in Second Life