We dislike erasure, because it so obviously eliminates information, and reduces memory. As much as erasure of memory is problematic and discussions about who decides what is being erased and when are crucially important in a democratic society, we also must not overlook that our aversion to erasure and its consequences is an artefact of our cognitive abilities and their specific constraints: We want to hold on to memory, precisely because we forget.
But human forgetting (our own individual erasing of memory) is as much a feature of cognitive evolution as it is a bug. It lets us grow as individuals, and thereby focus on the present, rather than being tied to the past. As Borges, in his famous story “Funes” details so eloquently, only as we forget specifics, we can embrace generalizations – by disregarding the trees, the forest comes into view.
It’s Borges’ point that especially warrants pondering in our digital times. In Borges’ story, Funes has perfect memory; he recalls with precision every sentence he read from the classics of literature, but he can't make connections between them. He can’t see beyond the specifics, because to him every piece of memory is equally important, equally crucial, and thus equally memorable. (The moment he would start weighing his memories, he would put himself on the slippery slope of decay and eventual forgetting.)
But if everything is remembered equally, one can no longer differentiate between the important and the trivial. By erasing what our mind assumes to be insignificant, it creates space for the memories that seem to truly matter to us. Human forgetting thus not only enables remembering, but more importantly that memory becomes actionable. That because we remember what is crucial, we can act accordingly. Because we forget Aunt Mary’s birthday party five years ago, we remember our wedding day. Because we as a society largely forgot about the intense public feud between proponents of AC and DC electricity, we have space to remember the Holocaust.
The challenge of digital memory, therefore, is not only that digital memory, too, has lots of (often non-obvious) holes. Digital memory is problematic precisely because it is far more comprehensive, because it captures so much, and makes forgetting so hard. Much like Funes, our challenge in the age of ample digital memory is to see the forest, not just the trees; to be able to focus, to generalize and to abstract. Without forgetting, we run the risk of treating evolution theory and chemtrails as equals, and of drowning human enlightenment in the sea of fake news. That’s why we need to develop skills to weigh and depreciate digital memory, and to preserve the space in memory that we need in order to evolve, as humans as well as society.