Do you want to remember everything?

“Until recently, the fact that remembering has always been at least a little bit harder than forgetting helped us humans avoid the fundamental question of whether we would like to remember everything forever if we could. Not anymore.”
– Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

Some things we want to remember (I’m all about memorizing scripture to help me love God more). And some things we need to remember (ahem, anniversaries, birthdays, etc.).

But other things, why bother? How much do you remember about what you ate for lunch in 3rd grade? About emails you wrote on May 29, 2010? About where you parked at Kroger three visits ago?

Some things we don’t try to remember because we either want to forget (I’d still love to erase previews of Psycho from my memory); or we know it’s not necessary because it’s irrelevant info; or we’re praying others will forget even if we don’t (think back to any arguments you’ve had).

With human memory, we forget far more than we remember. Overall, that’s probably a good thing. Who wants to remember everything they’ve ever seen, heard, or experienced? It’s considered extremely burdensome by those who can.

But in our digital world? Everything is changing. . . .

“Since the beginning of time, for us humans, forgetting has been the norm and remembering the exception. Because of digital technology and global networks, however, this balance has shifted. Today, with the help of widespread technology, forgetting has become the exception, and remembering the default.”
– Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

Therein lies a multitude of new and interesting dilemmas as I read recently in Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.


Technological changes in photography is an example that author Viktor Mayer-Schönberger uses in the book.

Back in the olden days, it was expensive to create long-term memories with photographs. I remember taking pictures sparingly with my first few film cameras because a cannister of film wasn’t cheap and neither was the cost of developing.

But now? I take multitudes of shots with a digital camera, download every one to my laptop, then transfer them all to an external hard drive. It’s easier to keep all than pick through and save only favorites. And I love that (although now I’m far more behind in actually printing any photos).

“Assuming it takes only three seconds for a person to look at an image and decide whether to preserve it or not, and that she values her own time at a current average wage, the ‘cost’ of the time alone that it takes to decide exceeds the cost of storage (including having a second copy on a backup device). With such an abundance of cheap storage, it is simply no longer economical to even decide whether to remember or forget. Forgetting—the three seconds it takes to choose—has become too expensive for people to use.”

Mayer-Schönberger says the four main reasons why remembering is now the norm instead of the exception are digitization, cheap storage, easy retrieval, and global reach. He explains each in detail in the book.

He says what’s truly at stake, though, is power and time.

Are you comfortable with Google having records of every search term you’ve ever used? What about your distant past becoming your living present with one click on an online search? In real life, memories fade and we go on with our lives (what woman would ever bear a second child otherwise?), but online, memories are forever fresh.

Digital memory isn’t all bad, of course. The benefits have been culturally-transforming and overwhelmingly advantageous. But the unique problems it presents are becoming more into focus. Saving everything becomes burdensome. (How many old emails do you still have? Ever try to sort through bookmarks you’ve saved on your browser?) Digital memory locks everything in, often without the benefit of context and definitely without the luxury of grace.

The author suggests some possible solutions, including voluntarily limiting what you save digitally; passing more legislation on what can be saved in the public domain and by private corporations; embedding expiration dates (of sorts) on digital information.

Because ultimately, “the value of information is not timeless.” Most information has a lifespan, and we don’t need to forget that.

“We may realize what humans have at least implicitly grasped for millennia: that good information is preferable to copious information.”

Who gets to decide what’s remembered and what’s forgotten? At this point, it’s still under discussion in the digital world, and will continue to be for awhile yet. Court cases keep popping up about “the right to be forgotten.”

Who could have imagined? This article stated it clearly for me in the May 26, 2014, issue of Time:

“To the list of things that our ancestors would have found utterly unintelligible about the way we live now we can add, right next to the epidemic of obesity, its informational equivalent: an epidemic of memory.”
– Lev Grossman

* * *

I’m still not totally comfortable with even God remembering everything about me (and he’s pure love!); I sure don’t want the rest of the world to. How about you? Would you like to remember everything if you could?

10 thoughts on “Do you want to remember everything?

  1. Dianna

    Memory…you have given me something to think about today. This digital age does make it difficult to forget some things. At one time I did the Google+ thing because it seemed like a good way to promote my blog. After a period of time, I did a search of my name and found that there was more information about me out there than I really wanted to know. I went back in and deleted that account…redid the search and found very little about myself! Reset some of my info on facebook and found even less about myself when I did the search again. Somehow we have become a people who answer questions when asked, often without even thinking about what we are giving away. Great post, Lisa!

  2. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    Digital storage can remember everything about me, but God remembers ME, and that’s the fundamental difference.

    The ‘Psycho’ previews are a good example – I’d bet that you want to forget them not because of what was shown, but because of the effect thay had of you (that I think is reflected in the vehemence of your comment). Thjose images took something from you, and you wish you had it back.

    Having to read “In Cold Blood” did that to me. It changed my world, and I didn’t like the change. it wasn’t beneficial, and I would love to erase not only the memory, but the downstream effects.

    However…I’ve just led myself into a logical trap! If I erase the downstream effects, how much of the good I have done, which arose from the person I became, would also be erased?

    It’s a tough question.

    The raw data that’s stored…I don’t much care. But the specific points of information or experience on which my life has turned – that’s a different story.

    AAnd those can be identified by God alone.

  3. floyd

    Wow… I’ve never thought that deep into it, but it sure makes a ton of sense. Somethings are better used in a distant memory than one that is in your face. Things to contemplate. Thanks for the thought provoking post, Lisa.

  4. June

    A lot to think about, Lisa! You’ve done a great job with this post. I try to balance technology with necessity. Only using what really makes my life simpler, not more complicated. Not always easy to do! I’m thankful that God does forget some things – my sin, once I’ve confessed and asked for forgiveness! That is one thing, I wish we could do (forget others sins against us).

  5. Barbara H.

    Definitely a dilemma. I like to “houseclean” my computer files sometimes, but it does take time. But it helps in the long run when I am looking for something. Same with photos. But with so many photos now because they’re so easy to take, it’s really hard to make time to sort through them. Yet the more I have (photos or files or anything else), the less likely I’ll go through them – weeding them out some times makes them more accessible overall.

  6. Pamela

    Remembering becomes harder the older I get-memorizing Scripture used to be so easy. I’m thankful for what I memorized in my youth! I want to be the girl in Unforgetable. But I’m sure there are some things I don’t want to remember. Although the devil is good about reminding me.

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