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You can forget, internet won't!
By Sudhirendar Sharma

Psychologists believe that forgetting is good for mental health. But the expanding reach and capacity of information technology, particularly the internet, to store and remember all types of information can have critical consequences for humanity.

Every bit of shared information remains on the web or in distant servers

Memory matters but not when one has a mobile phone at hand. It not only acts as a personal telephone directory but keeps track of important dates too. Add to this a personal computer and the hard disk acts as perfect memory prosthesis. Everything that one ever wants to recall is a click away, relieving human mind of the unsavory task of remembering facts and events. Perfect digital memory may seem amazing but its hidden dimensions are no less disturbing.

Several cases of profound embarrassment, and even legal action, have been reported - many employees have been fired for mentioning on Facebook that their bosses/jobs were 'boring'. Uploaded for the fun of it, revealing pictures of innocent acts have devastated the lives of many young women. Digital memory didn't spare Bill Clinton either. Some of his intimate e-mails would continue to embarrass him throughout his life.

All this because the internet remembers what humans would like to forget. Digital memory is an onslaught on the important role that forgetting has played throughout human history. It is now proven that forgetting is central to human experience whereas the difficulty of remembering is an implicit result of the second law of thermodynamics. The trouble with digital memory, given its cheap storage and easy retrieval, is that it does not allow outdated information to go away.

The trouble with digital memory, given its cheap storage and easy retrieval, is that it does not allow outdated information to go away.

For economists, better information means efficient systems. But the question remains whether humans can live in peace without forgetting? At a societal level, such accessible digital memory aids in forecasting general trends and society-wide development, enabling policy-makers to adjust policies before problems get out of hand. But on the other extreme, the failure to forget creates a panopticon crossbred with a time-travel machine.

Why remember, when we can store everything?

Recent research concludes that forgetting plays a central role in human decision-making, letting us act in time, cognizant of, but not shackled by, past events. However, through perfect memory we may lose this fundamental human capacity - to live and act firmly in the present. The case of a 41-year old Californian woman, AJ, is riveting. She lacks the biological gift of forgetting since she was 11, but incessant memory has agonizing impact on her ability to decide, and live.

Most people have called what AJ has a gift, but for her it is a burden. In her recently published autobiography, AJ writes "Though people tend to think of forgetting as an affliction and are disturbed by the loss of so much memory as they age, I've come to understand that there is a real value to being able to forget a good deal about our lives." For her, forgetting is not an annoying flaw but a life-saving advantage. Isn't digital memory creating clones of AJ?

Retrieving information is easy, but somewhere it is remembered for you

Forgetting not only comes naturally to humans, we also forget as a society. Societal forgetting gives individuals who have failed a second chance. In some instances, bankruptcies are forgotten as years pass. Even criminals have their convictions expunged from their records after sufficient time has passed. Through collective forgetting our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from the past in readjusting our behaviour.

The extensive documentation of our lives goes beyond the dilemma of 'privacy' though. Ever since Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, there has been significant reduction of control over 'our' information. Others have gained 'power' from our loss, using information to influence the circumstances of our future interactions with the world. By placing eloquent personal details on social networking sites, we unknowingly empower others to use it.

Since most of us are beginning to repose the trust in our past with the trust in digital memory, we are becoming vulnerable to alterability of the digital memory, and our history.

Not without reason are companies like Google investing in maintaining hundreds of thousands of hard disks in huge server farms. It is reported that Google is operating half a million servers with up to a million hard disks, the cumulative storage capacity being in excess of 100,000 terabytes (million megabytes) of data. What Google might do with this information remains a mystery but it is clear that the information can be digitally altered as well as commercially traded.

History is replete with instances where control over society's past extended dictatorial powers to its rulers. There are cases where historical texts were deliberately altered to construct a reality that didn't exist. With monopolized digital memory, the task of altering history will be easier and quicker. Since most of us are beginning to repose the trust in our past with the trust in digital memory, we are becoming vulnerable to alterability of the digital memory, and our history.

Given the fact that the present generation has started preferring digital memory over human memory, the centralized control over information will have serious social, cultural, legal and political implications. Without doubt, digital technology is creating a new world order where forgetting will be an exception, and remembering the default. This is in contrast to how humans have evolved - wherein forgetting has been the norm and remembering the exception.

Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, author of Delete: the virtue of forgetting in the digital age and director at the National University of Singapore, argues that the issue ought to be debated in the public, and till such time the only way of getting out of the digital trap is by proposing an expiry date on information.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

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