The Importance of Being Forgetful

Our ability to archive increasing amounts of data is threatening one of the fundamental aspects of human cultural development: our ability to forget.

When today’s present turns into the distant past, today’s everyday life won’t fall into oblivion anymore. For the self-perception of society, the lack of historical memory loss is even more consequential than the current loss of privacy.

It doesn’t usually affect us when the little secrets of everyday life are recorded in writing or on film and thus become immortalized and collectivized memory. Almost every word published in newspapers or on the internet, or broadcast on TV, about the daily lives of this person or that doesn’t amount to much beyond a steady stream of background noise – not unlike the gossip that was heard and shared in villages or barrooms in the past. Gossip always had a special kind of staying power: it remained present as long as the messengers interacted with each other.

But henceforth the daily lives of generations of ancestors won’t be lost to the collective memory anymore. We can already see the first consequences of that development when we look at those who stood at the center of media attention several decades ago. Since the middle of the 20th century, the hedonistic lifestyle of celebrities and the irrational decisions of politicians have become well known. But we barely know anything about the daily lives of our own ancestors. A few scientific studies have tried to tackle the issue, but they rarely influence the ideas we hold about how our ancestors lived their lives a hundred years ago.

Consequently, it’s rather easy to form an image of our ancestors as moral role models. Many of us still cling to the belief that honesty and life-long devotion were once widespread and have only decayed recently. But upon closer inspection we must concede that we simply don’t know too much about the past. It’s certainly possible that our great-grandparents simply kept quiet about their lies and extra-marital affairs. Even if an affair turned into village gossip, it did not generate newspaper headlines. Printed papers were scarce and didn’t have to compete with each other for scandalous stories. Death usually put an end to gossiping about a particular person.

It was a good world. Each generation could anchor the moral norms of its particular present in the past – in particular, the belief that a society with better morals was possible and that it was thus worthy to fight for the upholding of moral norms.

Future generations won’t have that luxury. Not only will they be confronted with their own daily shortcomings (large and small) in the media, but they will also be exposed to a growing trove of stories about the moral failures of the past. Our present tendency to preserve gossip as part of a growing body of collective memory (instead of merely gossiping, only to eventually forget about it) will make it impossible for future generations to turn us into moral role models for their own time.

You might welcome that as a more honest representation of the past, as a representation of the truth. But it’s doubtful whether truth is the best yardstick by which to measure the adequacy of emerging moral norms.

Read more in this column Jörg Friedrich: Back to the future

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