Failing to forget the “Drunken Pirate”


Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor. ‘Failing to forget the “Drunken Pirate”‘ Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009) 1-15


What we sense is the demise of forgetting, and a fundamental shift to the default of remembering.

[discussion of Panopticon, ‘a prison in which guards could watch prisoners without prisoners knowing whether they were being watched’, leading to Foucault and Oscar Gandy’s theories, connecting the ‘panopticon with the growing trend towards mass surveillance in our times. The panopticon shapes present behavior: I act as if I am watched even if I am not.’]

Comprehensive digital memory represents an even more pernicious version of the digital panopticon. As much of what we say and do is stored and accessible through digital memory, our words and deeds may be judged not only by our present peers, but also by all our future ones.


Through digital memory, the panopticon surveys us not just in every corner but also across time.

Forgetting plays a central role in human decision-making. It lets us act in time, cognizant of, but not shackled by, past events. Through perfect memory we may lose a fundamental human capacity – to live and act firmly in the present.

[refers to Jorge Luis Borges’ short story Funes, the Memorius]


[Discusses case of woman who cannot forget]

Instead of bestowing AJ with a superb facility, her memory repeatedly restricts her ability to decide, and to move on. It seems that those that have the capacity to store and recall unusual amounts of what they experience, feel and think, would like to be able to turn off their capacity to remember – at least temporarily.

Too perfect a recall, even when it is benignly intended to aid our decision-making, may prompt us to become caught up  in our memories, unable to leave our past behind, and much like Borges’ Funes, incapable of abstract thoughts. It is the surprising curse of remembering.

Forgetting is not just an individual behavior. We also forget as a society. Often such societal forgetting gives individuals who have failed, a second chance.

[Through] mechanisms of societal forgetting, of erasing external memories, our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experience and adjust our behavior.


Technology facilitates the demise of forgetting – but only if we humans so want. The truth is we are causing the demise of forgetting, and it is up to us to reverse that change.