Sunday, October 23, 2011

The world is a forgetful place

Is all memory technology an invitation to forgetting?

At the new, wonderfully overwhelming LA Review of Books, Casey Walker uses Joshua Foer’s “Moonwalking with Einstein” to raise the difficult question that seems to be at the heart of the recent study surveyed here on transactive memory, at the crux of this Radiolab segment, and at the nexus of much apprehension about the future of the internet.

As Casey writes:
“The world is a forgetful place. We cannot remember even what we wish to, what we’ve tried so hard to hold onto, our holy books and most famous writers and the terrain of the planet on which we live. Call it the Sebald problem: the mind is always lapsing into oblivion.”

And we worry that technology — once it was writing, now it’s computers — is aiding and abetting this dispersal of memory into oblivion. Rather than inviting us to forget, however, Casey points out that ever more complex technologies actually bolster the sort of “effortless” memory we rely on in our “more prosaic lives.” We don’t need to be “memory champions,” like the ones Foer aspires to imitate in his book (prodigies who can instantly recall umpteen digits of Pi) because we have technology that stores such information, leaving our minds free to learn and think and remember other things. Or, as Casey puts it, “We might remember less, but we still know more, which makes it hard to mourn the memory palace’s loss.”

The concern that technology is destroying our memory seems even more bizarre, bordering on the realm of paradoxical, since we simultaneously worry that data storage technology will never allow us to forget. As Jeffery Rosen wrote just last summer in a New York Times Magazine front page piece called, “The End of Forgetting,” forgetting has immense social value, but the advance of memory technology “increasingly means there are no second chances — no opportunities to escape a scarlet letter in your digital past.”

How are we supposed to make sense of the interaction between the web and memory if we believe that the Internet is pushing our memories into oblivion at the same time that we insist on our “constitutional right to oblivion” and “reinventing forgetting on the Internet”?

Wikipedia is the perfect embodiment of these conflicting anxieties. On the one hand, Wikipedia (plus a solid 3G or WiFi connection) offers a convenient source of transactive memory — we don’t need to carry random trivia around in our brains because Wikipedia will “remember” it for us. On the other hand, Wikipedia has the potential to present a biased documentation of biographical information that could prevent the sort of social forgetting Rosen was writing about. Thus, Wikipedia represents what we love and hate about computing technology all at the same time — instant access to unbridled information — suggesting that our continued efforts to make conclusive statements about the future of memory and technology are futile because it ignores the magnificent complexity of both.

We can embrace or denounce futuristic narratives about downloadable brains or the death of privacy at the (algorithmic) hands of online personalization, but it’s hard to imagine a future in which we don’t protect both our biological memory, no matter its shortcomings, and our privacy, no matter how much we seek transparent information.

In the great human story, it’s not the end of memory or the end of forgetting. The tale is still unfolding as our memories are adapting to technology and we are adapting technology to complement our memories.

9 sept. 2011