The Advantages of Amnesia

Jessica Winter – The Boston Globe

Copyright The Boston Globe
IMAGINE CARRYING AROUND an entire research library on an iPod. Such a feat suddenly seemed feasible as of earlier this month, with the news that IBM physicist Stuart Parkin is close to perfecting an advance called “magnetic random access memory,” or MRAM, which will enable us to store exponentially more data on the tiniest of hard drives.
Parkin’s development, which should reach consumers within a few years, is the latest installment in our eternal quest to preserve and supplement the human memory, which has taken us from the cuneiform slab to the cassette tape to the Ginkgo biloba tablet washed down with the day’s first cup of coffee.
As digital-storage capacities reach seemingly boundless proportions, however, some thinkers are becoming nervous about the unintended consequences of memory technology. Certainly Google’s enormous reserves of user information, stored in dozens of secretive data centers across the world, and the literally photographic memory of the Internet Archive, which preserves billions of defunct Web pages for posterity, are enough to leave anyone rattled. New forms of memory are permanent and accessible from anywhere. As their reach grows, scholars are asking if now – perhaps for the first time in human history – we need to find ways to forget.
“We used to have a system in which we forgot things easily and had to invest energy in remembering,” says Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Now we’re switching to a system in which we remember everything and have to invest energy in order to forget. That’s an enormous transformation.”
Jorge Luis Borges envisioned the risks of perfect memory in his famous story “Funes the Memorious,” about a man gifted with unlimited recall, and paralyzed by it. Perhaps not even Borges, however, could have imagined our present capacity to accumulate and preserve memory in digital form – or the powerful impact it is already having on individual lives, as temporary indiscretions become part of the permanent record. “What you do online is potentially there forever,” says Coye Cheshire, an assistant professor at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. “Delete if you want; ask Google to take down that one unflattering photo – but it’s still saved, archived, somewhere.”
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