Remembering the past to reimagine the future
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Remembering the past to reimagine the future

Cloud storage and hard drives are today’s scrapbooks, records, and memories.

In his book delete (2009), Viktor Mayer-Schönberger explored “The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age”.

He writes, “As humans we do not travel ignorantly through time. With our capacity to remember, we are able to compare, to learn, and to experience time as change. Equally important is our ability to forget, to unburden ourselves from the shackles of our past, and to live in the present.”

Many people will want to forget 2020. The year of Covid-19 will enter history as a modern Plague Year, which has disrupted norms of social behaviour and revealed fault lines in democratic governance. In terms of accountability, it has been dire politically and morally.

In his book, Mayer-Schönberger points out that, in the pre-digital world, humans had to choose deliberately what to remember, while the default was to forget. Yet, “In the digital age… that balance of remembering and forgetting has become inverted. Committing information to digital memory has become the default, and forgetting the exception.”

The world will retain a detailed digital memory of 2020: a permanent record of the terrible things that happened. But there will also be a record of the good things. We shall remember millions of front-line workers and caregivers in the global fight against Covid-19. We shall remember the millions calling for a return to democratic values and decency. We shall remember the millions – especially the young – urging concrete actions to tackle the climate crisis.

Digital is helping us not to forget. The term for the interplay of present and past is collective memory. It is neither monolithic nor monochrome, but transmutes as perspectives shift. French sociologist Pierre Nora described it as a “sea of living memory” that on receding leaves relatively few shells on the shoreline.

Today that sea is digital and it is constantly throwing up shells of every size and variety representing every facet of life. It may still be impossible to forget – or to delete, to use Mayer-Schönberger’s word – but with trillions of digital memories in play, we must be doubly wary of who might collect them and what purpose they might serve.

We hope for a better future by remembering and recognising failure, imagining change, and struggling to bring it about. Even with our heads in the cloud, we still have to come down to earth.

Photo: Sara Codair/

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