Comment: Loose canon: As nothing can be forgotten, the internet generation will be a lot better at forgiveness, says Giles Fraser
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Their private tutorials were supposed to be about the finer points of Aristotle's philosophy, but "more words of love than reading passed between us and more kissing than teaching". Heloise d'Argenteuil was nearly 20 years younger than her teacher, the celebrated theologian Peter Abelard. And their 12th-century love affair became the stuff of legend - her pregnancy, their rows, their secret marriage and finally the brutal castration of Abelard by Heloise's angry and protective uncle.
With their physical love at an end, Heloise retreated brokenhearted to a convent, sometimes exchanging charged and tearful love letters with Abelard, other times desperate to forget him. Centuries later, the poet Alexander Pope would make famous Heloise's desire to forget as a wish for the "eternal sunshine of the spotless mind". In 2004, a film was made with that phrase as the title, in which two lovers have their memories wiped in order to forget the pain they caused each other.
The point made by both the poem and the film is that you can't ever forget. Memories bubble up, unbidden. This side of Alzheimer's disease, they cannot be successfully repressed. I suppose that was Freud's big idea too. There is no spotless mind bathed in perpetual sunshine - and especially not in the age of the internet.
It's not just Spanish bankrupts and exposed paedophiles that want Google to forget their past; most of us would like an erase button fitted into our consciousness. Who wouldn't want to eliminate the memories of bad behaviour, past humiliations or unrequited loves? But the goldfish option is clearly unavailable.
The internet - and its bastard progeny, social media - leaves a trail of our past indiscretions open to view in a way never previously imagined. And whatever the legal situation with Google, the internet can never truly forget. It's not a command and control operation and so there is no mechanism for universal deletion.
Which is why (I predict) the internet generation is going to end up being a lot better at what we used to be comfortable calling forgiveness. For if we are going to find it more and more difficult to forget, then we are surely going to find it more and more important to forgive. Public figures will no longer be able to delete their messy adolescences, for instance. Which means that we are going to have to learn to deal with our public figures as being more than bland two-dimensional cutouts. We are going to have to accept that they are as human and fallible as the rest of us. This is clearly good: we are simply going to have to learn to be more honest about ourselves and about other people.
So I won't be weeping tears for the demise of our ability to forget. Forgetfulness was always a sort of poor-man's forgiveness: mimicking some of the positive consequences of forgiveness - like releasing people from their past - without requiring those involved to do anything as difficult as facing up to the truth or even to say sorry for it. Forgetfulness was always forgiveness for cowards. And I say "was" because, with the internet, the age of forgetfulness is over.
Between the collapse of faith in God and the emergence of the internet, there was a brief historical window in which people in the west could comfortably think of themselves as having established real privacy from external scrutiny. When people believed in God, and believed that God knew everything and didn't forget, then we needed forgiveness for past sins. That is, the past needed to be dealt with rather than denied and deleted.
The same is becoming true again. Luke's gospel has it thus: "There is nothing hidden that will not come to light." The spotless mind was always a fantasy of avoidance.
(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
[ Back To Technology News's Homepage ]