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The importance of forgetting

We live in the Information Age so we should be able to adequately inform ourselves, make thoughtful decisions and act on matters of importance. We certainly have enough environmental problems to solve these days. Yet we have been eminently poor at addressing most of them. Why?

One of the answers may reside in the complex character of the Information Age itself. Professor Viktor Mayer-Schonberger's book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the New Digital Age. (Drew Nelles, Globe and Mail, May 4/13), provides some ideas that lead to possible explanations.

Forgetting, as Professor Mayer-Schonberger notes, is a blessing. It frees us from the oppression of perfect memory, clears the clutter of endless details and allows us to find the illuminating clarity of deep insights and the guiding principles of broad perspectives. Without forgetting, we get lost.

Getting lost seems to be the malaise of our time. The endless details provided by a world of ubiquitous digitization and manic consumerism creates information overload, a barrage of discriminations and choices that are numbing and debilitating. Even worse, such an onslaught of details is demanding and distracting — an insistent and addictive noise that always requires attention. Some of this notion is explored in Delete.

"For almost all of human history," the professor writes, "collecting information and storing information was time-consuming and costly, and therefore we stored as little as possible." Finding information was correspondingly difficult. All this has been changed by the digital universe of computers, the internet and search engines. Information is amassed easily, stored quickly, retrieved almost instantly, and never forgotten. Such huge amounts of accessible information has a debilitating quality.

"Human forgetting actually performs a very important function for us individually as well as for society," Professor Mayer-Schonberger notes. "It lets us act and think in the present rather than be tethered to an ever-more-comprehensive past. The beauty of the human mind and human forgetting is that, as we forget, we're able to generalize, to abstract, to see the forest rather than the individual tree."

The overload of current information debilitates us in two ways, neither of which seem to be intuitively obvious. First it locks us into an eternal past because information is always drawing us backwards in time, always away from an existential present — a process that Drew Nelles describes as "an era of endless archiving". This overload of information is ultimately debilitating because it seems to be endless. So final decisions are conveniently deferred because more information always lurks somewhere in the depth of new research and digital searches. Even scientifically credible opinions on important subjects such as global climate change and the health hazards of pollutants are always made uncertain by the promise of more current and relevant information. Conclusions are forestalled by the digital dissemination of a seemingly infinite variety of opinions, all to be weighed and judged against other conflicting opinions. So firm decisions and remedial actions always await an elusive finality that never comes. Information, in other words, can be paralyzing.

Second — and this seems to contradict the first — an overload of detailed information locks us into an ever-unfolding present, an attribute that, at first glance, should be to our advantage.

But it has a dangerous pitfall. In Professor Mayer-Schonberger's metaphor, an overload of detail commits us to attending to the trees rather than the forest. It mires us in minutiae. We never reach the macro because our attention is always diverted to the micro. Indeed, these mountains of minutiae displace a concept of future.

The consequences of collapsing stocks of the ocean's fish, of pandemic reef death, of marine acidification, of deforestation and weather extremes become distant concerns disconnected from the present by interminable detail.

Political governance, located somewhere in an abstract and disconnected future, provides no incentive for people to vote. The enticing pull of massive quantities of detail — information overload — is so confining and debilitating that it cripples our ability to reach the distance and separation needed for perspective. So we forfeit our future to inadvertence, relinquishing our fate to an unplanned unfolding that exposes us to the worst of options.

This was a serious enough problem in the past — our history is littered with the wreckage of civilizations that were incapable of imagining the trajectory of their thinking, their actions and their technologies. For us, the problem is far more serious because the impact of our behaviour is global rather than local. As we have gained increasing amounts of control and influence, we have gained increasingly amounts of responsibility.

So we are earning the burden of being the de facto stewards of everything. We cannot enjoy the freedom of letting nature take its course because we have manipulated the flow of rivers, subverted the intrinsic ingenuity of forests, crippled the regenerative power of wild salmon, despoiled the generosity of oceans, enslaved the fields to our crops, polluted the cleansing breezes of air, hurried the slow time of leisure, and traded our innocence for the oppression of information.

Because we cannot afford to forget, we have created a society in which we cannot generalize, anticipate and plan. We cannot learn from history because it has been displaced by the insistence of the immediate. And we cannot plan for a future because it is excluded by the pervasive power of the present. Perspective eludes us because we are mired in a cacophony of detail and complexity. The wisdom that our circumstances demand evades us. So, unable to forget and remember, we muddle and procrastinate our way into an uncertain future.


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