Remembering and forgetting

Lots of people keep diaries. My wife’s grandmother kept a record of nearly every day of her life, preserved in perfect journals to which (I am told) she sometimes referred in order to refute something her husband said. I do not know if this is true, having seen no actual record of it, but I take it on good authority that this would sometimes happen.

Many people, myself included, are also keeping these web-journals or web-logs, both in an effort to communicate with others and to chronicle the present. They make for great records of what one was thinking at a given time. Smaller snippets of virtual remembering are also embedded in various social networks – what I thought about the latest cat meme, the sardonic comment that really didn’t come off about some piece of inane news, or the virtual argument I started with an acquaintance I haven’t seen since 1999.

My gmail account has so much storage that I no longer need to delete messages. Everything is archived and instantly searchable. With online note-taking tools, I can quickly unearth nearly anything I was thinking in the last several years. We appear to be rapidly approaching a time when life itself will be streamed live and recorded for posterity (see Google Glass). Anything that hits the web will likely be kept in perpetuity.

I recently finished a book about the aftermath of the American Civil War in which the author argued that specific kinds of forgetting and a creative remembering helped to bring the North and South back together, at least politically, after the war. “Both sides were valiant in battle, and both sides fought for that which they believed” – this was the constructed memory of the war. If they had YouTube back then, I doubt the fiery political speeches that each side made would have been forgotten.

We all tell stories about ourselves, and remembering itself is often an act of creativity. Our brains are wired to see patterns where they might not exist, to make our past more linear than it actually was, and to de-emphasize difficult or painful episodes. We tell stories, in the process re-encoding those memories and subtly changing them. We experience hindsight bias, the feeling that we knew exactly what was going to happen in a given situation, but only after the fact. We experience cognitive dissonance, or something akin to “making the best of it,” in which we tell ourselves that a decision that we made or a situation in which we find ourselves really is what we wanted all along. We rationalize our decisions to ourselves and others by remembering in creative ways – and by selectively forgetting or downplaying conflicting data.

All of which leads me to wonder if the mass “archivization” (to coin a neologism) or near-perfect, instantly-accessible, fully-searchable record of everything we have said and done is really as wonderful as we seem to think. Is there something to be said for uncertainty, especially the uncertainty of the past and the creative (and, perhaps, psychologically beneficial) ways in which we remember? Or is this simply the next way humanity will augment its intellect through computers?


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