The Role of Remembering and the Importance of Forgetting


Mayer-Schonberger, Viktor. ‘The Role of Remembering and the Importance of Forgetting’ Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009) 16-49


Contrary to popular belief that we only use a small fraction of our brain’s power, the entire network of neurons and synapses is active in healthy human beings. But all the incredible processing and storage capacity of this vast network would be overwhelmed quickly if we committed to memory every sensory stimulus we receive.

To cope with the sea of stimuli, our brain uses multiple levels of processing and filtering before committing information to long-term memory.

As our nerve cells process the incoming information, from simple stimuli to pattern recognition, a tremendous amount of information is deliberately lost. It is the first layer of unconscious biological forgetting – and one we rarely realize.


[discussion of theories of short-term memory, Alan Baddely]

Actually, remembering is a two-step process. The first is successfully committing information to long-term storage. The second is recalling that information from memory.

[discusses procedural memory, such as learning to tie shoelaces or ride a bike] Such remembering is not a conscious act, but a by-product of humans engaging in certain routines.


That’s why it is part of implicit memory – memory that we acquire and recall without realizing it. After tying our shoelaces dozens of times as kids, we can’t help but remember how to do it as adults.

If recall from procedural memory is automatic – we do not have to remember how to ride a bike, we just ride it – declarative memory requires a conscious act of recall.

If we want to remember, we have to think about it, and actively “search” our mind to recall that experience or event in our past.

Because these are specific episodes in our lives we have experienced, they are called episodic. It differs from abstract knowledge, which humans also have the capacity to store and recall: remembering the Pythagorean theorem is abstract memory, while recalling the context in which we heard about the Pythagorean theorem – for example, in high school – is episodic memory.

[Some neuroscientists] suggest that when we forget, what we have lost is not the information itself, but the link to it.

Unfortunately, the links to our long-term memory that are so essential to retrieval are not very durable.


Havard professor Daniel Schacter is sceptical of such a mechanistic description of the human brain as a gigantic and precise, albeit imperfect, filing cabinet. We mus be careful, he reckons, that we are not caught up in metaphors of how digital computers store and retrieve information, and in the shadow of modern information processing conceptualize the human brain as a deterministic biological computer.

In contrast to such a mechanistic conception, Schacter proposes a view of human long-term memory that is not unalterably etched in stone and from which we simply retrieve. Instead, Schacter suggests that our brain constantly reconfigures our memory – what we remember, based at least in part on our present preferences and needs. For Schacter, our memory is a living evolving construct.


[Schacter] argues that human (re)construction is not so much a deficiency as a benefit. Using generalizations, relying on conjecture, emphasizing the present, and respecting subsequent  experiences, helps us to reason swiftly and economically, to abstract and generalize, and to act in time, rather than remain caught up in conflicting recollections.


[…] the difficulty of remembering may be an implicit result of the second law of thermodynamics, one of the most fundamental rules of nature. It states that in our universe (as a thermodynamic system) randomness is bound to increase. There is nothing we can do about it.

Creating memory is producing some kind of order within our brain, which requires energy. Forgetting, on the other hand, can also be random, devoid of high energy-consuming ordering. Fundamentally, therefore, physics also tells us that remembering, unlike (random) forgetting, is always costly.

Aware if, and perhaps overly awed by how superior information recall can improve one’s decisions and thus enhance one’s chances of survival, our ancestors have long appreciated a human’s ability to remember: those who could remember directions, or the movements of the sun, the moon, and the stars.


Two hurdles, however, constrained the value of human memory for tens of thousands of years. First, humans had difficulties storing and recalling abstract pieces of information.


Second, memory was contained in individuals. They had a limited ability to pass it on from one person to another.

Information traveled through the slow and cumbersome route of creating procedural memory, of individual sensing and experiencing obviously limiting its potential.

Evolutionary biologists estimate that language is a relatively recent phenomenon in the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution.


In Africa, between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, something happened. The sophistication and spread of tool usage swelled much quicker than ever before. It is difficult to believe that learning by doing – the time-consuming process of creating procedural memory – alone can account for this rapid innovation and adoption. The much more plausible explanation is the rise of language as a vastly more efficient tool to communicate (and thus pass on information).

Language, as our ancestors quickly discovered, is superbly powerful. It lets people convey their experiences and their knowledge to others, thereby spreading them quickly across geography.

Even more importantly, language enables humans to preserve memory by passing it from one generation to the next. This ensures that new generations can build on the knowledge of their forebears.

It also changes the way that time is perceived. With language, previous generations become identifiable entities to which one can refer and which one can remember.


Language enables humans to realize history, to understand a past beyond their own, and to contribute to it. With speech, narratives emerge that are passed on across generations.

All of the grand epics began as oral traditions, from the Sumerian Gilgamesh to the Nordic Edda to the Greek Illiad and Odyssey, often using rhyme and meter to facilitate remembering – and through language they came into being.

As language eased communications and aided in the creation and spread of abstract memory, it transformed the lives of our ancestors. It enabled them to pursue abstract thinking and develop general ideas about life and nature. And unlike thousands of generations before them, they now had an incentive to uncover these ideas, to understand the laws of nature, because their insights, the abstract memory that they had built over their lifetime could be preserved by communicating it to the next generation.


It requires time and effort to communicate and remember.

The effort needed for a narrative to be remembered acts as a potent filtering mechanism. The most trivial insights were probably not passed on this way; that process was reserved for what our ancestors assumed was central: knowledge that improved human survival – as well as grand epics that pondered fundamental issues of human existence and helped form a common bond among humans and across generations.

[Today’s] technical gadgetry has not altered the fundamentals: human communication is still time-consuming, and as a result, so is human remembering.


Sharing is key to keeping memories alive, and language is a prime mechanism of doing so.

Remembering is always a constructive endeavor. Through recall, experiences and ideas reemerge in our mind, influenced by our own individual development and the context of the life we live – as does parsing and storing what we have heard.

[…] combining human memory and oral communication may preserve the central gist of a story, the epic adventure of life and death, of love and war. But it is unlikely that, through such a process, precise details will be maintained over time. This may be less important for an epic saga […] but is highly relevant when accuracy is important (for instance, how to farm crops, interpret the weather, navigate using the stars, or employ certain herbs to treat an illness).


Plato and Aristotle, as well as other Greek philosophers, write extensively on the value and nature of precise recall, and described useful tools to improve one’s memory. Human society’s admiration for superior human memory continued into the Middle Ages and persists in modern times.

However, the fundamental quality of human memory remained unaltered:  that storage and recall are constructive processes.

Things become more difficult if we use language to pass our memories on to others. The constructive processes of storage and recall then take place in two or more people rather than one individual.

The meaning of words and their connotations differ from one person to another – understandably – and those that listen to a narrative without having experienced it will have to quite literally construct the memory of it based on how they understood the words they heard.

Despite this structural imprecision, which kids grasp when playing “telephone” [chinese whispers], passing on narratives can bring about something like a shared common memory amongst a group of people, but through each act of human recall, listening, and storage its content is altered if ever so slightly.

If human remembering is the weak link, then perhaps memory needs to move from the brain to some external storage and retrieval device.

Looking at our own drawings or reading our own words aids us in remembering, making it possible for us to recall more, and do so more accurately. Used this way, external memory is an extension of our own human memory.


External memory can also be used to facilitate the construction of shared common memory.

By contrast [with memories shared through talking to another, telling and listening happen at the same time], with external memory, telling and listening are two distinct events separated in time. Telling happens when I write the letter, listening when the recipient reads it. Both are acts of (re)construction.

Painting is perhaps the oldest form of establishing external memory.


Today, painting (like sculpturing) remains an expensive and time-consuming method to externalize human memory.

Preserving memory through painting has another, more serious, drawback. It is good at capturing a moment in time but not time itself, and thus is of limited use in remembering a narrative, an episode in an individual’s or society’s life.


One can easily imagine a painting of a decisive moment in battle, much less so how a painter would tell the unfolding of the battle itself.

Time is not the only difficult dimension to represent in a painting; abstract ideas or thoughts – like the Pythagorean Theorem or Newton’s law of gravity – can be similarly tough to picture.


[Writing] was a breakthrough for remembering. Once writing was known and established, human experiences and knowledge could be stored outside the human mind, to be recalled at will and with accuracy.

But the advent of writing did not change the fact that remembering remained constructive, time-consuming, and costly.

{Description of the slow development of Sumerian pictograms into cuneiforms, requiring expensive scribes]


Writing also fashioned a new source of power: preserved knowledge. Leaders began to institutionalize collections of writings for their purposes.

[Description of the ancient libraries of Ashurbanipal and Alexandria [Assyria & now Egypt]]


And yet, as much as script fundamentally changed our human capacity to preserve information and enhance our recollection, it also exemplifies the inherent limitations of external memory in general, and written memory in particular.

This is because, for us humans, the meanings of words change subtly over time based on our evolving understanding of the world, even if it is the same person writing and reading.

If you have ever tried reading an old diary entry of yours from many years ago, you may have felt this strange mixture of familiarity and foreignness, of sensing that you remember some, perhaps most, but never all of the text’s original meaning.

As words aren’t precise containers of information, each word and each sentence necessitates human interpretation, requiring us to imbue them with the meaning they have for us when we recall them.

Literary theorists debate exactly how much our reading of a text changes its content. But they do agree that reading (and other recall from external memory), much like remembering, will always remain a (re)constructive endeavor at heart.


[Cites his friend’s controlled library collection; discusses the rise of libraries]


[In around 1000 BC] Even the simplest and shortest book, for which a scribe would take perhaps three weeks of full-time work, would sell for the equivalent of about $700. Such a form of memory was an expensive tool, used with utmost care. By default, people continued to forget. This did not change for the next thousand years.

[In the mid- to late first millennium CE] The Catholic Church began to usurp much of the script environment.

In contrast to the relatively liberal (albeit socially stratified) Roman times, for a thousand years remembering became tightly controlled and organizationally centralized, although the spread of “silent” reading (rather than monastic reading aloud) made reading more efficient for those permitted to.

By the beginning of the fifteenth century CE, the library of Cambridge University had a total collection of 122 books, and labored a half-century to increase that number to 330.

But about 1450 CE, a relatively simple invention combined with sociological factors facilitated important change: Gutenberg’s printing press with movable type. It permitted the mass production of books, drastically reducing the time needed to create a single copy.


Printers mass-produced entertaining works, as well as Greek and Roman classics and comparatively fewer religious texts. The control over memory was slipping from the Church’s hands.


By the end of the sixteenth century, Europe had been flooded with printed books and pamphlets promising access to God, furthering religious and political propaganda, chronicling scientific discoveries, reviving Greek and Rowan classics, and providing diversion and amusement. An important shift had taken place: external memory had become mass-produced.

Yet, fundamentally remembering remained expensive […] the cost of an individual book failed to decrease by much, because books were printed on paper, and the cost of this critical resource remained high – for centuries.


Industrial pulp mills in the early nineteenth century finally lowered the price of paper, causing paper production to skyrocket.


[With the arrival of cheaper papers, including the so-called penny press] Literate lower middle class and working class people could finally afford to buy regularly printed information and they did.

[Literacy was exceptionally high in America] The leaders of the young nation saw the promotion of a robust and broad communicative space as a core goal to sustain the economic and societal development of the republic, and citizens were willing to dedicate time and resources to inform themselves of the matters of the day.


[By the beginning of the twentieth century, the growing readership] led to a new phenomenon in external memory.

What emerged from the mass reading of mass-produced print was widely shared societal memory. Through the act of reading, this shared memory grew, providing its readers with a sense of place – geographically as well as in time.


Geographically, readers could position themselves in relation to the world and the location of world events, transcending locality, and offering – as Benedict Anderson so eloquently argued – the chance to belong to a powerful, if imagined community, in which people felt connected to each other not because they were geographically close, but because they had socially constructed – imagined – a community of belonging.


Equally important, widely shared memory provides a temporal anchorage for the reader.

[Constructed shared memory] is a combination of external memory – what is written in print – and the subjective connections and connotations readers establish to it – what is printed and how the content is understood and referenced by the individual readers.

Mass media fosters the construction of a common shared memory beyond what people have witnessed together or a witness told a friend, and beyond the narrow confines of geographic proximity.


Only when the large majority of people read the same books and newspapers would many experience constructing a memory from the same source. This is not only true for newspapers, but for radio and television as well.

[Arguments for and against this kind of common memory]

If most people read only one newspaper or watch one television channel, fewer events can be communicated and thus committed to memory than otherwise. The net result is that in the traditional world of concentrated print and broadcast markets, external memory remained expensive – not so much in pecuniary terms for the recipients, but in available attention time.

Apart from the relatively few events that are reported, for most events, shared remembering remained the exception, forgetting the default.


[In the eighteenth century, external memory in the form of diaries, letters or recipes, remained expensive due to illiteracy or price of paper. When paper price came down with industrial pulp mills, the acid in the paper caused it to disintegrate quickly] Documents written on such paper had an embedded self-destruction mechanism, an automatic expiry date. This explain why so little cheap paper documents of that time exist today.

Thus while more external memory was produced in the nineteenth century than in previous times, due to multiple constraint long-term affordable remembering remained elusive.

The analog memory inventions of the nineteenth and twentieth century did relatively little to change this.


[Discussion of rise and costs of popular photography]


[Discussion of amateur movie cameras]

At such a price-point, people thought twice before capturing something on celluloid, using the movie camera as they had the photo camera decades earlier: to capture special events and extraordinary moments.

Recording audio on magnetic tape became accessible in the 1950s, with the availability of magnetic tape recorders, but as with tools to capture visual memory, recording audio, too, was initially quite expensive.


Analog video, combining pictures and sound, follows the now familiar pattern.

But as equipment and media prices for capturing memories decreased and capturing volume surged, other formerly hidden costs came into view. With hundreds and hundreds of photographs and many hours of audiotapes and later videotapes, effective retrieval becomes a problem.

If users want to be able to retrieve the external memories they have produced, they must spend time putting photos in books, or at least have them neatly sorted in envelopes and boxes. They have to keep exact records of what is stored on what tape, and update their records whenever they make any changes.

There is no question that the amount of information people captured and committed to various types of external memory drastically increased over the last quarter century, but in the analog age, effective remembering was complex and time-consuming, and thus costly. Remembering still remained quite a bit harder than forgetting.


Since the early days of humankind, we have tried to remember, to preserve our knowledge, to hold on our memories, and we have devised numerous devices and mechanisms to aid us.

Yet through millennia, forgetting has remained just a bit easier and cheaper than remembering.

Until recently, the fact that remembering has always been at least a little bit harder than forgetting helped us humans avoid the fundamental question of whether we would like to remember everything forever if we could. Not anymore.