Lines from a Semi-Luddite: On Forgetting

29 Oct

Jeffrey Rosen wrote an NY Times Magazine cover story, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” in which he addressed the impact of the Web’s archival nature on our online — and offline — reputations. Given the Net’s inability to “forget” our every tweet, photo, and update, we are scrambling for mechanisms to deal with its social ramifications. Because, after all, sometimes there’s nothing we need so much as a blank slate. There is a value to forgetting.

There’s another dimension to this. For one, the Internet does not help us to remember so much as it helps us to retrieve. A brief example, using one of my favorite memories: I was wide awake in DC at 1 AM, and figured I would call home because of the forgiving 3 hour time difference. My dad and I began talking about poetry, whereupon he decided to recite some Tang dynasty poems to me. Just as I was falling asleep, floating downstream on images of boats ten thousand miles away, I bolted awake, realizing these poems that coursed from my father’s lips came forth so naturally — but not easily. The words he spoke that night were the same words he recited a short while before, which were reflected upon months prior, which were taught to him by his own father years earlier. With that sort of constancy, I get the impression that these poems are some of the strings that bind the length of my father’s years together.

It’s an understatement that my command of poetry pales in comparison. Case in point: I had to Google search a few phrases in that poem in order to provide the link above, since I never memorized it well. The whole process didn’t take that long — certainly, not as long as it would to commit such a short poem as that to memory. The boon of the Internet is quick retrieval, which is totally different from quick recall. Possessing a fast recall is the end product of a slow effort.

Precisely speaking, I should not say I forgot any of the lines from the Li Bai poem, because indeed I never truly remembered them. This is the other value to forgetting. It seems obvious, but you only forget what you remember. That said, I think it’s good that the human memory is limited, because it’s only under such conditions that I have to make an effort to prioritize and hold onto otherwise fleeting memories.

Facebook rolled out a new feature today that allows users to track the trajectory of their Facebook friendships. Surprise, surprise — this neo-Luddite finds this horrible, and will write on it soon. Although, as an interesting note: this very post was collecting dust as a draft since late-July.

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