What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

The importance of forgetting (or not)

What will it mean to have access to remembering everything?

Memory plays a tremendous role in our lives and society. Memories connect us to people, times, and places, or disconnect us from others. A memory can prevent us from making a mistake or could help to convict someone of a crime. Memories can haunt us or they can provide a safe place for us to retreat to.

Before the advent of the internet, memory was all most people had of the past. Unless someone was a famous artist, politician, or history-maker of some sort (and therefore in the news), lives were marked by what people wrote down, photographs that were taken, or (for the most part) things others remembered about us.

With the Web, however, all of that has changed. Any event, photo, thought, activity, etc. that is posted becomes a permanent record, and one that is available to everyone and anyone for all time. Rather than memory being stored internally, it is now stored externally and available for anyone who might wish to see... indefinitely.

What are the consequences of this available "memory" or record? For some, it has resulted in a job loss or interfered with livelihood. To this end, young people are being warned not to post things online and companies are springing up that can be hired to search the web to remove detrimental photos or information. New technologies are being developed that automatically degrade photos, texts, or postings over time, so that eventually they "expire." Email accounts are even developing icons with a disapproving look that pops up when someone attempts to send emails during a period of time (weekend evenings, for example) when they might send a drunken email they would regret.

But beyond things going "on the record" that might be damaging to career or reputation, this external memory storage can have other relational implications. The process of forgiveness, for example, can involve forgetting or a memory fading with time. If the evidence is available and graphically depicted and keeps the memory fresh, this can make forgiveness more difficult. Sometimes "getting over" something in general involves letting go of the memory or associations. Conversely, there are times when we remember being quite moved about something or experiencing delight. It is possible that having an available record or photograph might diminish the memory when we re-visit that event, making it feel more trite. On the other hand, there are times when it is wonderful to go back and read about a life-changing trip that you blogged about while you were on it, or to have children see what their parents were thinking about 5, 10, or 30 years later. For better and perhaps for worse, our concept of memory and record is changing for good. It will be interesting for all of us to see how we adapt and how this new way of remembering changes us in return.

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Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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