The Value of Societal Forgetting in the Digital Age

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In “The Importance of ‘Societal Forgetting,”’ Jeffrey Rosen argues that societal forgetting is valuable because it enables and assures people’s past faults and sins can gradually fade away with time. And thus, those at fault can be forgiven, can have a second chance. Rosen argues that technological advancements have expanded human’s previously finite memories, both in terms of capacities and time span. All behaviors, especially those published online, are constantly being recorded, stored, disseminated, and accessed by the public. As Rosen put it, these continuous and complete records relentlessly haunt people (262).

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Technologies make life convenient, but at the cost of no longer being able to gain forgiveness. According to Rosen, societal forgetting is vital because it allows a less monitored, far less intensive mode of existing: where one does not necessarily have to be held responsible for everything they have ever done, by reason of no one would have the ability to remember each transgression. I agree with Rosen’s stance that people should not have their every move recorded. Societal forgetting is necessary because people deserve opportunities to renew themselves. People’s past sins should be forgiven so as to offer them a second chance and the potential to realize personal growth. Human beings are nowhere near perfect. Second chances and opportunities to become better are critical to the human experience. It is crucial that past mistakes be let go of by fellow human beings and also erased from the digital memory bank.

Humans are extremely changeable. The ability to constantly adapt is within each person. So, who they are today can and most definitely will be different from who they were yesterday. And if humans cannot learn to forget, they most certainly will not be able to forgive individuals who changed as a result of their mistakes. As Rosen put it, “with the infinite bank of memories, one is left with no opportunities” and “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking” (Rosen, 263). Still, today’s technologies are so advanced that people can use services like Twitter or Facebook to publish their thoughts and experiences.

Of course, with the sheer quantity of content being shared comes inevitable mistakes such as inappropriate jokes or indiscreet remarks. Now, these mistakes can be recorded with the click of a button using tools such as screenshotting. Increasingly, internet celebrities are being boycotted because of controversial acts or speeches posted online. Logan Paul’s inappropriate video log of him visiting the infamous suicide forest in Japan, finding a dead body, and then filming and publishing the entire trip on YouTube is a perfect example. It became an instant flashpoint with both Paul and his channel suffering due to his actions: many of his sponsors pulled out, advertisement revenues dropped, and his channel was almost shut down by YouTube.

Today, digitized archival memories force incidents like this to stay in people’s minds forever. In the past, when celebrities or public figures said or did something questionable, the public would forget and move on quickly. However, as a result of digital archiving, these controversies will persist because the content is always accessible. For example, multiple copies of Paul’s controversial video can still be found on the Internet even though the original was removed from the channel on day one. As Rosen maintains, celebrities like Logan Paul will be “haunted by his digital passes” (Rosen, 263).

Additionally, people’s identities are not rigid. Instead, they are highly elastic and flexible. Therefore, to speculate on a person’s current characteristics based on previous records like the audition processes adopted by many US corporations cited in Rosen’s article would be inaccurate, unethical, and irrelevant (Rosen, 263). This is especially true during one particular stage of life—adolescence. Children undergo a series of changes to better prepare themselves for adult life. In the process of finding their identity, these adolescents may engage in societally unacceptable actions.

Take my younger sister as an example. While in high school, she turned to social media (Facebook) as an emotional outlet. At the time, she posted her thoughts along with some really dark themed photos of her crying and attempting to hurt herself as a form of emotional relief. Now, several years have gone by and she has walked away from that period of her life. Yet, despite switching to a new account that previous profile is still publicly accessible. Even after transforming into a completely different person, individuals can be judged for their past views and actions.

Information posted years earlier may reflect thoughts at that time, but even though the person might have forgotten what was said, the Internet has not, others have not, and they probably never will. This is even worse when considering the fact that this is now an era where online profiles are used to understand, hire, connect with others. My younger sister was a victim of lack of forgiving: to this day, people often refer to her as “that pathetic emotional little girl.” She has attempted to shut down her previous Facebook account, but in vain because over the years she has forgotten the password, lost access to the phone number. Countless examples demonstrate just how technologies are not always beneficial, and also how societal forgetting prevents individuals who have reformed themselves from escaping the backlash of their past. It is clear that digital memory archives basically do nothing but minimize or even eliminate the chance for individuals to reform or revamp themselves.

On top of all that, forgiving and forgetting are complementary to each other. Like the author mentioned, many of the social media sites have features that constantly remind users of past events (Rosen, 262). These obnoxious algorithm-generated autonomy messages often do more harm than good. Take myself as an example, I once had a really good friend back in middle school with whom I spent hours upon hours together doing almost everything. Thus, there are scores of our photos available on Facebook. Later on, we got into a big fight where we were arguing over the fact that she was hanging out with many not so good “influences.” Eventually, we lost all contact and that marked the end of our friendship.

I was slightly traumatized due to the fact that I could not believe that a friend I had known for a decade would just walk away from my life like that. Not to mention, the whole process happened not so peacefully. However, due to the fact that we are technically still friends on Facebook, even though we have migrated to other social media platforms as our main stages, I am still regularly bombarded by reminders that can trigger my emotions every single time. If it were not for prompting by social media, I think I might have forgotten about her long ago. And with forgetting, comes forgiving. Yet, I never could forgive her, and the mechanism of Facebook as a form of digital memory bank which takes it even a step further by notifying me of things like “5 years ago, you and Alice went to Universal Studios” is to blame.

Conclusively, Rosen is correct when he asserts that societal forgetting is essential, and the kind of alternative memorizing mechanism is not only unnecessary but also vexing. Moreover, the lack of societal forgetting combined with the popularity of a mega online digital memory bank nowadays means it is virtually impossible for an individual to set out to reinvent him/herself due to the fact that their past will most likely continue to burden them in ways they never anticipated before. The aforementioned examples illustrate just how thoroughly these digital memory banks are infringing on individual’s lives on a daily basis, causing it to be extremely challenging for people to break away from their not so desirable past and reinvent themselves. Ultimately, the kind of controversial dilemma between enjoying the conveniences brought by technologies and the correlating problems is a never-ending task for those who live in the twenty-first century to solve.

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