What Was It Now? Oh, Yes: Memory

A piece in the Times recently was titled “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” Thank god, we’ll finally be able to find Mrs. Churm’s keys when she needs them.


August 5, 2010

A piece in the Times recently was titled “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” Thank god, we’ll finally be able to find Mrs. Churm’s keys when she needs them.

Of course author Jeffrey Rosen doesn’t mean that kind of forgetting. He’s wondering, “Can we imagine a world in which new norms develop that make it easier for people to forgive and forget one another’s digital sins?” “Sins” in this case is mostly ironic and means merely “bad taste” or “questionable judgment”:

Four years ago, Stacy Snyder, then a 25-year-old teacher in training at Conestoga Valley High School in Lancaster, Pa., posted a photo on her MySpace page that showed her at a party wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption “Drunken Pirate.” After discovering the page, her supervisor at the high school told her the photo was “unprofessional,” and the dean of Millersville University School of Education, where Snyder was enrolled, said she was promoting drinking in virtual view of her under-age students. As a result, days before Snyder’s scheduled graduation, the university denied her a teaching degree. Snyder sued, arguing that the university had violated her First Amendment rights by penalizing her for her (perfectly legal) after-hours behavior. But in 2008, a federal district judge rejected the claim, saying that because Snyder was a public employee whose photo didn’t relate to matters of public concern, her “Drunken Pirate” post was not protected speech.

In truth, Rosen says, we care less about scrutiny of our online lives than we do about controlling our reputations, since “the permanent memory bank of the Web increasingly means there are no second chances—no opportunities to escape a scarlet letter in your digital past. Now the worst thing you’ve done is often the first thing everyone knows [through, say, a Google search] about you.” He mentions ReputationDefender, a company that “automatically rais[es] the Google ranks of…positive links…[and so] pushes the negative links to the back pages of a Google search, where they’re harder to find.” Of course this spin comes at a price, subscription to their services, which the company sells with fear: “Your life could go viral at any moment.” A video on their site, titled “Why you need ReputationDefender,” is, they claim, “only lightly terrifying.”

(The ad is somewhat convincing, showing Facebook-style photos of a shirtless guy with a beer bottle sitting upright on his enormous gut and a naked couple with their[?] cats covering their genitalia. I instantly regretted posting them here at the blog. But elsewhere the company’s visual rhetoric is confused. Under the category of “[the opinion of] bosses” there’s the famous still photo of Elvis in creepazoid mode with nasty Richard Nixon. Does this imply I should suppress knowledge of my pill-popping so I can become a bloated narc for a corrupt government? Under “partners” the video shows Roosevelt and Churchill with Stalin. Does this mean to suggest, even jokingly, that Stalin’s reputation would be good-to-go if only his genocides could be pushed to the end of search-engine results?)

Rosen quotes “cyberscholar” Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, who claims that “In traditional societies…the limits of human memory ensure that people’s sins are eventually forgotten.” He’s never worked in my department.

It is true that sins are forgotten in human memory—or else transmuted into nostalgia; see the case of Billy the Kid—but sometimes that’s only long after the individual who stands to suffer for them is gone. Sometimes grudges and rumors actually fester and become more poisonous before they fade, since they amplify or confuse original events. But Scott Fitzgerald overstated the case when he said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” In the digital age, as it’s always been, there are second acts but not for all, only some, and it’s hard to tell how the play will end. (“You die and then you rot,” a friend used to say, in which case online reputation might grow less interesting to you.)

Some corporations may not hire based on what they see floating around in the clouds of the new technology, but it’s just as true that many people will never change their opinions on someone even after seeing hard evidence to the contrary on the web, and others will never sift through all the data to discover the truth. Mayer-Schönberger’s claim that online material “will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them” is almost triumphalist in its perception of technology’s power over the human. It runs in the same vein as an esteemed writer’s claim that humans have “evolved” in a few decades with the invention of digital storage and is even related to the seemingly opposite belief that new technologies will always come along to fix what the old ones screwed up.

(The Industrial Revolution produces greenhouse gases that warm the planet; “geoengineers” clamor to fix the problem by bombing the upper atmosphere with sulfides to reduce solar radiation; “a failure of the geoengineering scheme [leads] to rapid climate change, with warming rates up to 20 times greater than present-day rates”; the entire surface of the earth breaks out in volcano-sized canker sores in the year 2041; it gets hard to find all-you-can-eat fried shrimp specials; McDonaldland scientists announce on Fox News they’ve developed a new Soylent Shrimp Meal; etc.)

When Mayer-Schönberger regrets that “societal forgetting” is a thing of the past, I sympathize then add that society—that plastic mass of people over time—will also forget, ignore, lie, and get bored with dissecting the same events and turn to other things.

Mankind writes its story in more and more diffuse ways. With the web and other recent technologies the book grows exponentially larger, but who can read the whole thing? Who would want to? “[T]he Library of Congress recently announced that it will be acquiring—and permanently storing—the entire archive of public Twitter posts since 2006,” Rosen writes. Will anyone care what @Churm 8 4 lunch in 2010 when there’s no fried shrimp in 2041?

Technology may insist we not forget anything, but with that much data it’ll be harder to discern which stories matter. One man’s madeleine has always been another man’s meat house.


Speaking of never forgetting: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab at the California Institute of Technology invites you to put your name and zip code “with others on a microchip on the Mars Science Laboratory rover heading to Mars in 2011!” Presumably you’ll be fondly remembered by that robot forever, or at least until our sun dies in the year 5,000,002,010 and leaves behind only “the lonely cinder of the former planet Mars.” The death of our solar system is brought to you by Bud Light.


The Internet should, in theory, keep humankind from losing old processes that might otherwise have died with their practitioners, but it’s still something special to watch them practiced by people. I don’t know how lost the skills of timber framing, stonecutting, and masonry ever were, but let’s take a drive over to the Ozark Medieval Fortress, where the next two decades at hard labor will give retro meaning to the term “brick-and-mortar business.”


As IHE reported a couple of weeks ago, writer Frederick Barthelme is being let go from the creative writing faculty of the University of Southern Mississippi. “Barthelme said he is being pushed out prematurely, but university officials said that—facing cuts in funds—they have been forced to set priorities for other programs, and not to continue ‘phased retirements’ like the one Barthelme wanted.”

Barthelme writes, “Having been delicately ousted from my slot as editor of Mississippi Review print and online editions, where I toiled these last several decades, I have invited my close colleagues who worked with me on the online version of the MR to join me here at a new venture….”

Forget MR Online. Say hello to Rick Magazine.


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