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The Internet

The End of Forgetting 329

Hugh Pickens recommends a long piece in last week's NY Times Magazine covering a wide swath of research and thinking in the US and elsewhere on the subject of the perils to society of recording everything permanently, and the idea that perhaps we ought to build forgetting into the Internet. "We've known for years that the Web allows for unprecedented voyeurism, exhibitionism, and inadvertent indiscretion, but we are only beginning to understand the costs of an age in which so much of what we say, and of what others say about us, goes into our permanent — and public — digital files. The fact that the Internet never seems to forget is, at an almost existential level, threatening to our ability to control our identities; to preserve the option of reinventing ourselves and starting anew. In a recent book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, the cyberscholar Viktor Mayer-Schönberger cites the case of Stacy Snyder — who was denied a teaching certificate on the basis of a single photo on MySpace — as a reminder of the importance of 'societal forgetting.' By erasing external memories, he says in the book, 'our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experiences and adjust our behavior.' In traditional societies, where missteps are observed but not necessarily recorded, the limits of human memory ensure that people's sins are eventually forgotten. By contrast, Mayer-Schönberger notes, a society in which everything is recorded 'will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them.' He concludes that 'without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.'"

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