Remembering the Importance of Forgetting

SINGAPORE – “Be careful what you post on Facebook,” US President Barack Obama warned American high school students this past September. “Whatever you do, it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life.”

In fact, we all are coming to learn that lesson the hard way: digital information almost never goes away, even if we wish that it would. The result is the permanency of the past in the present. This fact is one of the biggest challenges that society will face as computers and the Internet become more a part of everyday life.

For millennia, remembering information was costly and time-consuming, and to forget was a natural part of being human. In the digital age, the opposite is true: cheap computer storage, powerful processors, and ubiquitous Internet access have made remembering the norm.

Consider this: we tend to retain our rough drafts, years of e-mail traffic, and thousands of ghastly digital snapshots on our hard drives, not because we have decided that they are worth remembering, but because keeping them is now the default way of doing things. By contrast, deciding what to delete is costly. It actually requires much more time and effort to shed data than to keep it. So we click “save” just in case.