What to remember, what to forget?

Humans are creatures with a gigantic memory. The evolution of the written word made it possible to store things outside our brains, and hence more safely for very long periods of time. This gradual accumulation has resulted in a memory too large for any single human to remember or grasp. Only collectively do we know a lot.

Sooner or later, the question of what is important and worth passing on, and what can be neglected or lost in the sands of time would have cropped up. This is because even external storage of memory is not costless. Different civilizations came up with different answers to this question. Indians seemed to have thought that lessons from history are more important than history itself, and thus have left us with very little solid historical data, which is why the huge controversies surrounding the ‘construction’ of ancient India. Europeans were more meticulous, and have always had a good tradition of storing away bits of information from life thousands of years ago.

But why is it important to remember? Goethe took a shot at this question, and said

He who cannot draw on 3000 years is living hand to mouth.

which is simply another way of stating what Newton said:

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The biggest advantage humans have over other living creatures is our capacity to build cultures, and it is on the basis of this culture that we can ‘move ahead’ without (literally!) reinventing the wheel every generation. This is why we have schools, so that we can remember something, and social institutions, so that something else can do the remembering for us.

But this memory can as easily be a disadvantage in many ways: First, not everyone who draws on 3000 years can rise above it to think for themselves. Knowing too much may kill creativity and the capacity to face a changing world. Second, remembering everything may preclude the possibility of forgiveness and healing. This is what is happening in India and America after 2002 and 2001 respectively. The intention is to ‘never forget what happened’ and the very memory breeds anger and hatred.

Thus, some people try and make a case that forgetfulness is as important to humanity as is remembrance. Thus, even when one is saddened by the news that Muslims in Gujarat are voting for Modi in the name of restoring normalcy,  one understands why it is happening. Shiv Vishwanathan believes that people are forgetting what happened due to Modi simply because all of today’s stories are written in the language of economics, which fails to capture the evil Modi represents. In fact, he is made to look like someone who has made Gujarat great if one only looks at the economy side of things. Same with the Bhopal gas tragedy. ‘Victims’ were converted to ‘patients’ and then to ‘vagrants’, simply by changing the language in which memory was constructed.

While this interpretation is undoubtedly true, one must also understand that even if the language changes, the want for people to restore normalcy to their lives will never go away, and that bearing a burden as heavy as the Gujarat riots maybe too much for most.

This brings us to today’s time. Semiconductor and magnetic memories have become so accessible and cheap that I believe that the 21st century will be a watershed for humanity: It is the time from which we forget practically nothing. Forever. The principle of important vs. unimportant memories simply no longer has any relevance. People are clicking photos using their phones and their cameras; recording voices and songs; recording every small detail of their lives on Facebook and blogs. It is no longer sufficient to experience something beautiful (or trivial for that matter), but to capture/record it from every angle and tweet about it, paste it on your wall and upload to Flickr or Picasa. The 21st century is the veritable historian’s nightmare: with nothing forgotten, he has to sift through immense data to try and make any sense of the world he will inherit from us. Undoubtedly, the day is not far when writing history will need the assistance of machines.

The demons of memory will haunt us now more than ever before in history. The issue is that it is not experience that makes us wise, but what we learn from experience. This requires a certain distance from what we experience, a kind of ‘greying out’ or ‘blurring out’ which is no longer possible as our entire lives are recorded in HD quality video. We have become ‘knowledge brokers’, but to rise above mere knowledge and pass onto posterity real lessons of history might no longer be possible.

Does everything really matter? If yes, does it matter to everyone around us, to the rest of the world? Just like Calvin says:

I’ll bet future civilizations find out more about us than we’d like them to know.

7 thoughts on “What to remember, what to forget?”

  1. May be historian will enjoy the huge amount of data he has. His problem is complicated now, but he is happy that he can more accurately document it with help of machines of course :).

    1. Historians are among the most anti machine guys, especially since using machines implies assuming certain things about the data normally!! Which is prolly why econometrics is ultra-popular, whereas computational history is not ;)

    1. In more than one way:
      1) Knowing and appreciating the past _in retrospective_ may make you unwilling to let go of certain elements, however anachronistic
      2) More data implies more to consider for every decision, making decision making slower
      3) A tendency to project new events as ‘another form’ of something that already happened and was solved tends to recycle old ideas even when not applicable.

      guess there are more, can’t think of them off the top of my hat! A canny person maybe able to bypass some of these pitfalls, but the ‘Curse of dimension’ affects us all…

    2. This is a very interesting topic, here you go:

      It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science (Charles Darwin).

      I oft found it difficult to convey such a thing in a results driven corporate world(it’s a different thing that I never tried to convey for whatever maybe the reasons). But overall what’s your opinion, I am still for knowing too much(may be comfort zone), that way, I feel, you are clear once for all as to how it works(where to stop/draw line etc) may be you haven’t shown results for too long. I am not sure of let go part(read human nature) but you can surely stand by your decisions. But with that said, on the other hand, I do feel you need to act intuitively/instinctively and gathering knowledge(especially too much) is being manipulative/artificial.

      1. I guess my stress is more about quality than quantity. In certain cases, like engineering or science, they may amount to the same. But like any victim of a traumatic experience will tell you, this is not always the case.

        The difference between treasured memories and more mundane ones is slowly eroding away. Also, the point about learning from your own experiences is crucial. To analyse experiences, you need to gain some sort of ‘distance’ from them, which is very hard when you are bombarded from all sides with recorded memories.

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