Of course you do. You could probably refresh your memory of the story in a few clicks. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is the author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, which argues that the all-too-perfect memory of the digital realm has serious implications for all of us. Case in point: Just last week, Mitt Romney suffered a setback at the hands of a certain widely released fundraiser video. It’s a familiar story. Politicians and public figures have suffered countless humiliations courtesy of cyberspace’s refusal to let bygones be bygones, a comeuppance that can seem unfair when the result can mean an entire career of public service cancelled out by one all-too-visible error in judgment (or tweet). Perhaps with so much of life digitally preserved, mankind can learn to adjust and filter accordingly? Read Schönberger’s Election 101 post here.
Mitt Romney’s dog, tied to the roof of the family car during a long vacation drive, is one picture (even if only imagined, based on the light-hearted story told by Romney’s son) that fails to fade. A year ago, aspiring young Democratic Congressmen Anthony Weiner, married to Hilary Clinton’s long-time personal aide abruptly resigned; he had sent partially nude digital pictures of himself together with explicit messages to at least six women he barely knew.
This election cycle is no different from the last. Stories and pictures from a politician’s past appear and shape our perceptions of who he (or she) is. And these images don’t go away, they stay in our collective mind, and no matter how hard politicians try, these images continue to define them in the public eye. At best they go away when the politician does. Rep. Weiner’s images have faded from the public eye, because so has he.
With so much of our daily lives captured digitally, so many digital photos taken, so many billions of emails exchanged, Tweets sent, Facebook Status messages posted, many of the digerati, the self-proclaimed Internet experts, predicted that humans would swiftly adjust to comprehensive digital memory, and develop robust cognitive filters. We would, the argument went, simply disregard the meme of Romney’s dog or Weiner’s explicit messages as an irrelevant little piece of digital trivia that is not representative of Governor Romney or Representative Weiner. If everyone has such skeletons in the closet, why should we bother? Wouldn’t we be better advised to scrutinize politicians’ agendas than their digital memories?
It’s an admirable viewpoint – and always struck me as terribly naïve. For one, not all of us strap our dogs to car roofs for long rides, or send sexually explicit messages to people we barely know. And the ubiquity of digital cameras (and the ease of sharing photos) does not turn us into Exhibitionists or Peeping Toms. But even more importantly, human cognition is primed to remember the exceptional, and to forget the ordinary. That is how we think. For thousands of years it helped us to quickly recognize changed conditions; it made us aware of dangers and saved our ancestor’s (and perhaps our) lives. We have this particular ability to see the red rose in a field full of yellow tulips – and that rose is what we later remember in detail, not the thousands of tulips around it. Because we recognize and remember exceptions, we can’t quickly forget Romney’s dog and Weiner’s explicit messages, even if we wanted to.
Thus, if more of our lives is captured digitally, preserved, and kept accessible, neither politicians nor we ourselves can hope for a cognitive adjustment that lets us put aside extraordinary bits of the past.
In politics this means that we may continue to remember Romney’s dog as much (or more) as his political agenda, even though that’s not how most of us like to see ourselves: rational and objective. It does not only complicate a politician’s life (she has to assume to be constantly watched), it also makes politics an unattractive career. That is troubling for a democracy.
But retaining an ability to forget in the digital age is important not just for democracy, but for all of us. We all have trespassed in the past, and unlike in the analog age these misdeeds are more frequently captured digitally now, and preserved long-term. It may be time to think how we best can rid ourselves of some of these digital memories that are no longer relevant to who we are today.
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is professor of internet governance and regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, and a member of the academic advisory board of Microsoft. His other books include Governance and Information Technology. A former software developer and lawyer, he spent ten years on the faculty of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.