Computers Are Making Us A Society of Elephants – But Should We Be More Like Goldfish?

What would it mean to us if we remembered everything? Terrible things, apparently.

There’s a new book out that’s concerned with data storage and the importance of teaching computers how to “forget” by deleting information. The author, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, identifies four factors that have led to unprecedented amounts of data being stored indefinitely: digitization, cheap storage, easy retrieval, and global reach. Is all of this information a good thing? No, argues Mayer-Schönberger, on the grounds that it will cause humans to pay their whole lives for past mistakes because they will never be erased by the passage of time and natural process of forgetting. In his words, we will have “a future that is forever unforgiving because it is unforgetting.”

The book’s thesis is that it is better to forget some things, so we are able to filter through what is actually important in order to draw conclusions at a higher level of analysis. On a personal level, this makes complete sense: being mired in the details can negatively alter one’s perspective and possibly render one unable to function. But what does it mean when applied to a society, or a discipline? Isn’t society, through its historians, in need of remembering as much of the past as possible? If not, what are the limits to what societies should remember?

In many ways, the effect that increased quantities information has had and no doubt will have on history as a practice and a profession is immense. Being able to store data indefinitely with significantly less risk of primary sources being destroyed will exponentially increase the number of sources from which we draw conclusions. Consequently, it will no doubt change the tone of debates historians have about whether one can ever truly know the “facts” of the past, or discover what “really happened.” (NB: I put these expressions in quotes because I am among those who believe that our idea of what is a fact and what happened changes as society changes, and that history is not an objective thing that we can ever know, but rather an idea that we hold.) More information will also radically alter who and how many people have access to primary documents. The “global reach” factor was certainly instrumental in helping me to complete my MA thesis, for example, which was sourced almost entirely through the online collections of universities in different countries. Technology may even, in time, displace the geographical and archival advantages of universities altogether. Why go to Oxford for the Bodleian Library when you might access all of its information sitting at home in rural Missouri? Democratizing a discipline is never a bad thing.

So why should we forego any of this in favour of forgetting? Well, for one, I suspect that societies may suffer from information overload just as surely as individuals. With the past documented more richly than ever before, events that occur now will face a far greater degree of scrutiny than has previously been known. Are we then destined to drown in the details and drift toward paralysis by analysis?

I also worry about the effect of yet more data concerning the minutiae of life. History as an academic discipline is already falling victim to the dangers of over-specialization (for proof of this, check out the title of any history Ph.D. student’s dissertation. any one. you’ll enjoy yourself). More technological advances will only further the trend.

So where does that leave us? My sense is that we as a society will always want more history because as individuals we will always be curious about where we come from and where we might go. Perhaps humans will evolve and be able to process much more information, and perhaps the march of time will change the discipline of history altogether. For now I’ll note with a true sense of irony that one day I’m sure I’ll look back on this post (which will no doubt be cached somewhere, even if this blog no longer exists) and hopefully be able to ascertain its proper place in the minutiae of my life!

What do you think is the role of historians and other students of the past? Is it up to us to maintain (establish?) an acceptable level of depth/breadth in our analysis to avoid becoming irrelevant? As the tellers of stories that influence how others think about where we’ve come from, is it also our role to limit their perspectives? Let me know your thoughts.

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