There are no such easy answers

As Todorov notes, memory is not the opposite of oblivion. Rather, it is the result of a complex interaction between effacement (or forgetfulness) and conservation – two forces that constantly pull our minds in different directions. Thus, memory is unthinkable without selection; when we “remember” an event, it means that we conserve only some of its traits, while setting aside many others. Some of this we do immediately, some of it over time and not very consciously. Thus, notes Todorov, “it is baffling that the ability computers have to save information is termed memory, since they lack the basic feature of memory, the ability to select.” – Evgeny Morozov from To Save Everything, Click Here

At my parent’s home in Florida, I have a collection of items – mostly letters and journals – from basically my entire life. It used to fit into a nice medium sized box but is now overflowing with items. Without putting two and two together, I created a smaller version of this when I was living in San Francisco. Tickets to the World Cup final, airline ticket stubs from my trip to New Zealand, receipts from wonderful dinner dates with my then girlfriend, photobooth pictures from a wide range of events, love letters etc. It was just the size of a shoebox but when I received it back this past week and went to put it with my other items, I realized just how visible and heavy my emotional baggage was and is. I looked at this slipping pile of items and realized it was my way of holding on.

Let me provide more detail as to how encompassing this pile of emotions and memories is – I found a detention slip from a friend of mine from when we were in the 9th grade. Why do I have this? Why was this of value to me? It was of value because she received the detention because she was caught texting me – it was a one off memory that made me laugh and my heart warm. She gave it to me after I got yelled at by my dad for sending 14,000 texts in one month (that’s another story). Is this worthy of keeping? Do I have the ability to “select” as the above quote states? What criteria am I selecting by?

If I think about this as a computer program, I could select to delete everything from before a certain date – say 2012. In that case though, I would lose all my journal entries dating back to 2002 that are frankly adorable and, to me, worthy of keeping. Okay – new idea – delete everything that isn’t a journal entry of mine. If I do that though, I lose out on finding my grandmother writing to my grandfather’s Aunt about how much she did for her family. I cried reading over my grandmother’s writing as it unveiled a side of her I never ever knew. What if I remove all items that aren’t related to my personal family? In that case, I would lose out on my countless letters from penpals over the years. Setting any criteria like this is painful and honestly not human. That’s why I love this quote.

In Middle School I used to go biking with one of my closest friends on this 20 mile trail. We’d inevitably end up at the same picnic table hanging out, eating candy, talking, making up games to play, listening to music, etc. It was a blast and I loved it. I used to bring my camera and record us just being silly. When my friend had to leave Florida, I narrowed all of these pictures and recordings into a 2.5 hour film. Literally, 2.5 hours was the shortened version. I watched it, cried, and cursed myself for not having more footage. There’s this sense that if I could have just recorded everything I could have remembered more and remembering more felt objectively better than forgetting. I didn’t give myself permission to forget especially growing up in a world where it was increasingly easier to save.

Part of To Save Everything, Click Here dives into the idea of lifelogging and the Quantified Self movement. The gist of what the author says is that by logging each and every detail, these folks simplify their experiences into seemingly controllable and understandable parts. To be blunt, this is just a form of deception. I fall prey to this desire to control, sort, and keep. It’s why I have an overflowing amount of items hiding under my desk at home and why it only continues to grow. The scary truth is that the items there are only the physical items and not the digital items I have managed to collect. I was one who screenshotted text messages, saved emails, logged meaningful AIM chats, blogged about big moments etc. My digital emotional record is scattered far and wide. I fear forgetting because I forget that when you forget something you don’t have the memory of whatever it is you forgot. It’s like being dead – you don’t know you are dead, you are just gone. You don’t feel the pain of death – the pain of death is only felt before one has gone. I live in this state sometimes. I torture myself with memories and replay items because I feel responsible for remembering. I feel irresponsible and out of touch if I forget.

The ironic thing is that even my memory, despite not wanting to forget, does because that’s part of the two forces of memory – forgetfulness and conservation. I foolishly let myself believe that my conservation is more important and more robust than my forgetfulness. The parts I do conserve, I cling to in a very real physical sense (just look at my overflowing pile of ridiculous stuff). Each item I pick up from that pile helps me retrieve memories stored deep in my little head. I know that if I throw out those items, it will aid in me forgetting and possibly never remembering. It’s the real life moment of “Are you sure you want to delete this forever?” I’ve written about before when deactivating social media accounts.

I once got into a conversation with a VaultPress customer about memory. VaultPress is a backup service so it was an ironic conversation:

Hmmm, what’s worse… burning a real book or a digital book? From a theoretical perspective, I would say there is no difference at all. The content is the same, the ideas are the same, the contributions that these ideas make to the human condition are the same… Yet realistically speaking, I believe the physical experience of burning a book is far worse than pushing that delete button on your iPhone. Why? I think it is a question of pain.
I read in Wired a musician comparing downloading an album with buying it at a music shop. Imagine this jazz fan ordering her fav album from the local music store. She has to wait two weeks for it to be delivered. Every day that goes by is full of anticipation! She goes down to the shop to see if it has arrived, and then one day there it is. She takes it home, slides it onto the turntable, and spends the next hour in pure heaven.
Compare this scenario with downloading the same album off of iTunes (or even worse, bitTorrent). The entire process from decision to download to having it playing is about 10 minutes. Plus, she probably didn’t just download that one album but the musician’s entire discography! She listens to that prized album for a while, then it gets lost in the thousands of other albums in Itunes…
So, which experience is most valued? Sometimes access to information in overwhelming amounts actually devalues the thing sought. We value most what we suffer for 🙂
I love these posed scenarios as they are so relatable and so accurate to today’s world. It makes me wonder that if it costs more to save these things if we would become more judicious about what we kept. If I had to pay 1 cent for each email saved, how many emails would I end up with? What if I had to pay $1? What about $10? These scenarios, while not reality, still need to make us look at how our reality of cheap storage affects how we respond and live – we respond by not worrying about what we keep. An easy change in cost could change a variety of our behaviors very quickly. It’s interesting to think about.
Just as retention does not mean remembering, so deleting does not mean forgetting. It’s easy to make computers erase things; just hit the delete button and be done with it. But there is no such thing as willful forgetting when it comes to human minds; you cannot forget something just by telling yourself not to think about it. You might delete the file from your hard drive, but the memory of it – and of the fact that you’ve deleted the file – might stay with you forever. When Bell complains of individuals who tell him they’d rather not live with “the truth” of certain events, they are not asking him for a lobotomy or mechanically induced amnesia. They have just reached a conscious decision that they’d rather not think about certain events in their pasts. Can they be confident their mission will succeed? Of course not. But what exactly is wrong with people choosing to limit their exposure to facts and events that will bring up horrible memories of say, child abuse or rape or some dreadful breakup with their significant other? The idea that we somehow have a duty to always remember the wrongdoing and the suffering we have endured rests on dubious moral foundations – Evgeny Morozov from To Save Everything, Click Here
Where does nostalgia fit into this? My senior year of highschool soccer we went to the state finals for the first time in school history and lost. Despite the loss, it was one of the highlights of my athletic career. I cried after the game hugging my teammates and coaches while feeling both on top of the world and deep sadness that this adventure had come to an end. This game was recorded and shown on TV. A couple of years ago I was home and noticed that the game was being replayed. I couldn’t help but want to relive those moments of glory and fight with my teammates. Dear god I wish I hadn’t. Looking back, it was just awful soccer. I felt embarrassed just watching it. Why did I make that pass?! What was that header? WHAT ARE YOU DOING, ANNE! I couldn’t believe this huge moment in my life was, on the outside and upon replaying, just a sorry soccer game that one could easily fast forward through. I couldn’t watch more than 5 minutes of the game simply because I didn’t want my bubble of a memory to burst.
Svetlana Boym, a Russian American scholar who’s written on the future of nostalgia, gets it right when she writes that “nostalgia tantalizes us with its fundamental ambivalence; it is about the repetition of the unrepeatable, materialization of the immaterial.” Remove that ambivalence, make the unrepeatable repeatable – through lifelogging, self-tracking, or some other modern technology – and the whole nostalgia making enterprise will crumble. – Evgeny Morozov from To Save Everything, Click Here
Where does forgiveness fit into this? Is forgiveness forgetting or remembering and being okay anyway? Is it forgiveness if one just forgets it happens? That seems a bit too passive to be forgiveness in my book. Forgiving feels like it needs to be an active choice. I’ve been struggling with all of these concepts recently – remembering, forgetting, nostalgia, forgiveness. I don’t have it figured out – what to select to remember, what do I facilitate forgetting, how “true” my nostalgia is, etc. The following excerpt gave me a framework though that I think we all must remember in this digital age:
Philosopher Avishai Margalit draws a useful distinction between forgiveness as the process of deleting, which he calls “blotting out,” and forgiveness as the process of covering up, which he calls “crossing-out”. If you want to erase something you’ve written, there are two ways to go about it. You can delete it completely and make it invisible – blot it out, in Margalit’s parlance – or you can cross it out, leaving traces of the original scribbles – that is, you can cover it up… While technology can – if only marginally, by tampering with factual evidence – help us with forgetting, it is not much help when it comes to forgiving. But even forgiving may not be desirable in each and every case; this too needs to be investigated, not assumed. Solutionism will not relieve us of the messiness of decision making for one simple reason: technology cannot provide an easy answer to morally intractable dilemmas about what we ought to remember and what we ought to forget, for there are no such easy answers – not when questions are posed in the abstract. – Evgeny Morozov from To Save Everything, Click Here
I read a recent article titled “Fitbit captures exact moment man’s heart breaks“. It was about a guy who was broken up with and the aftermath of that breakup. I laughed, wanted to cry, and then wanted to check my own fitbit stats. I stopped myself though because this entire concept is comical. Your heart doesn’t break in one moment. If that’s the case then I’d love to see the moment in Fitbit data when your heart heals. The same heart rate pattern could easily match what looks like me going on a run. Here’s the original tweet:

The oddest part about this is that I bet fitbit thought he was getting a workout in. It probably listed those moments of increased heart rate as him being in a “fat burning” stage. At the end of all of his crying, it probably notified him that he spent an hour doing cardio and lit up his watch in a moment of celebration. I had this happen recently – I was walking with a friend talking through a very intense topic when my watch buzzed. 10,000 steps!!! I was on the verge of tears and nearly was derailed by this abrupt and out of place celebration buzzing. It was one of the most disorienting experiences with technology I’ve experienced. Technology did it’s job though – it tracked me, notified me, and tried to gamify me through rewards. All of this only makes me sure that we must in turn do ours – we must still work on the messiness of forgiving and forgetting and remembering. Simply tracking and recording doesn’t excuse us from these responsibilities (along with many other huge responsibilities).

P.S. Everyone should read To Save Everything, Click here



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4 responses to “There are no such easy answers”

  1. Okay, so this is a little off-the-topic, but dang! 14,000 texts in one month is impressive!

    Anyway, I remember going through a big purge one summer during my undergraduate period. I wanted to make sure everything I owned could fit in my car and I could move more freely. It was very difficult to get rid of so many old things that were essentially rubbish, such as tickets or receipts or old cards with nothing more than a signature on them. My motivation was a drive to make my memories meaningful and a realization that the object couldn’t capture the memory.

    The day my wife and I engaged, I specifically left my camera at home because I knew that my photography easily interfered with whatever activity I was doing and wanted to make sure that didn’t happen.

    So many of our methods for _capturing_ or _storing_ memories really do distract us from our ability to subjectively remember and interpret our experiences.

    The digital world presents a related but different problem, in my opinion. While we can look through that memory box, we have already curated what goes into it. “But memory is cheap!” we say about digital storage and so we just throw anything and everything into that box, leaving us with so much information we can’t even _find_ the relevant bits, as you alluded to earlier above.

    This has been a real challenge for me again with my photography: try to end up with no more than twenty or thirty pictures for any given event. People don’t mind looking at that small of an album and they can really take them in, but pollute those “memories” with a few hundred more pictures and the great shots are lost in the noise and fatigue of the others.

    Ironically, I still have an email inbox dating from 2005 or 2006 that I just can’t wipe ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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