How Will Life Change if No One Forgets Anything?

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Feb. 13 2012 11:29 AM

The Technologically Enhanced Memory

How will life change if we can’t forget anything?

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Is the quest for profound memory enhancement an unalloyed blessing or Faustian bargain? Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, leans toward the latter:

With Facebook's Timeline feature, our past is seemingly with us all the time. It will make forgetting, the crucially important human quality that is already threatened by the ubiquity of comprehensive digital memory, harder still. This will empower the big data accumulators and weaken the individual. It will hamper our opportunities for a fresh start, and a second chance. And it will reduce our ability to act in the present without remaining encumbered by a never-fading past. In short, it will inhibit us to abstract, evolve, grow and forgive, and to see the forest rather than just myriads of trees—thus [undoing] a core element of being human.

My colleague Elizabeth Lawley, professor of interactive games and media at RIT, also has concerns about our evolving relation to what Mayer-Schönberger calls "digital memory.” Consider Timehop, a lifelogging app that performs "memory engineering." Interfacing with check-in and geo-tagging programs like Foursquare, the app sends users reminders of what they accomplished a year ago. These blasts from the past encourage us to consider social media technology tools for simultaneously journaling and broadcasting. While this outlook can be beneficial, Lawley raises an interesting question: If we go through life aware we’re leaving behind a detailed digital archive that future generations can read, might we be inclined to behave inauthentically so that our digital breadcrumbs point back to idealized versions of ourselves? Along these same lines, Princeton psychology professor Daniel Kahneman likes to draw upon a distinction between the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.”  He proposes a provocative thought experiment: “You know that at the end of the vacation all of your pictures will be destroyed, and you’ll get an amnesic drug so that you won’t remember anything. Now, would you choose the same vacation?” If you wouldn’t, it might be because you value memories of an experience more than lived experience.

Illustration by John Mix.

Illustration by John Mix.

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One more concern should be added to the mix. Improving memory-prompt technology does more than enhance our recall abilities. It primes us to delegate ever more behaviors to automated processes. We’ve already moved past Facebook reminders of friends’ birthdays to fully automated birthday greetings. Similarly, Hallmark allows us to create greeting cards for the entire year in one sitting. It is hard not to see these options as altering, perhaps even diminishing, the meaning of rituals, especially when so many of us have already developed a Pavlovian response to prompts.  

Although the memory transformation train has left the station, we don’t know where it will it stop. Critics have long warned us about the ability to erase painful memories. If we make bad decisions, nobody can blame the result on poorly understood “memory dampening” ethics. Memory supplements, however, may be harder to think about. Like a child who eats too much birthday cake, we find it difficult to see how getting more can be more than we bargained for.      

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Evan Selinger is an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. He is also a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology. Follow him on Twitter.

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