The Art of Forgetting

Someone left a copy of The Independent on the train today, and, flicking through it, I glanced at an article that argued the many benefits that are to be had by being able to remember things, and remember things well. It reminded me that I’d wanted to write something on forgetting for some time now.

I’d forgotten all about it, of course. That’s not to say that I forget about a lot of things, but, in turn, that’s not to say that I am any good at remembering. There is a flaw here between this idea of remembering and forgetting; and that flaw is that, not doing the one implies the other. You can’t remember things well? Then you are forgetful – you struggle to remember, you are incapable of remembering; and this brings with it a number of connotations. We all have to go through a number of tests when we are young – at school, and elsewhere – that test our ability to remember things. Whether key facts, or shapes, we are constantly told to revise them – to try and keep them within our minds- so that when it comes to the exam we can regurgitate some of that digested knowledge and pass. But then we fall into another difficulty – if you do well at tests, you are seen as intelligent, but also, if you do well in coursework you are also seen as intelligent. Some people are good at both. Some better at one than the other, and yet, they are both a measure of our intelligence.

So lets hit the personal button. I have an appalling memory. I’m not sure when I worked this out,  whether it has been deteriorating over time, whether it is of my own doing (indirectly, or directly), or whether I was simply just never good at it. Nevertheless, I’ve found ways around it. Just because I cannot remember doesn’t mean that I have to forget (in an odd way), let me explain…

We live in the modern age. When I was a kid, computers weren’t a household item, but I knew they existed. They got smaller, faster, more manageable, and then suddenly we had one in the house. My dad knew his way around computers, and I watched him, and I learn’t how it worked. Then the computer became a sort of second home for me – or an extra brain. I couldn’t remember, but my computer could – and so long as I knew how to take care of my computer, then I’d be able to remember. Then came the internet – which meant that suddenly the computer didn’t necessarily have to remember, and your memories could be accessed from other computers.

There was always pen and paper – but then it became a matter of physical clutter. I kept everything I had, to try and remember, in case it became useful at a later date. Often it didn’t. Often I spilt tea over my papers, or accidentally chucked them out. For me, there was more danger with the physical form than the virtual one, and the virtual one seemed more malleable to me once I got ot know the way in which the systems worked. You could end up using a different program altogether – but, like the qwerty keyboard, there were always elements of the interface that you’d seen before. You just had to adapt, be flexible, work around things.

Now this is where the magic is. I’ve been talking about mymemories, but obviously, the magic of the internet was that it was world-wide. Everyone else’s memories were on there. Academic documents, political manifestos, books, opinions, news, and then television and radio, video and media sharing… if the ability to remember is helpful to everyday life, then surely the ability to find memories is just as helpful – and, in a Philip K Dick-esque turn, to find other peoples memories, others opinions, information even, is more helpful. To be able to decide the credibility of a certain document by knowing where to go and what to look for is often beyond the capability of the person who can ‘remember’; perhaps they can remember Derrida’s , ‘At the center of the world, the European has the luck or power to be European and everything else at the same time’ (p.223) but can’t recall the many responses by others – or the date and time of it’s saying, or where it was said, or the context of the situation. This is all available online, though, without too much searching.

Now, I am not supposing that this ability to use technology is incapable of being  independent from the issue of remembering and forgetting – because it is, or maybe it is. Of course I remember some things, or I’d be in a sorry state! But what I am saying is that if I wasn’t so bad at forgetting I wouldn’t have looked elsewhere. It didn’t help me in my exams, of course – I wasn’t allowed a computer, and to this day I disagree fundamentally with the British education system (okay grades at GCSE – i.e. nothing too shiny, alright grades at A-level, nothing shiny, First at University…) – though I agree that different people learn and apply their knowledge in different ways (just that our current education model leans a certain way) – but had I been allowed a computer with the internet I probably would have been fine. Same with a number of other people.

Perhaps I simply learnt to keep the information as to how I find information than the information itself – which is simply another kind of remembering; a task like remembering. When it comes to coursework and research I do rather well – because it is a task that demands that ability to find information, and not necessarily to imbibe it. It is glorified file sorting, really. Or, maybe (in a meta-way), I learn’t how to learn a system – so that I could apply myself to certain systems; the systems I chose to get along with… nevertheless, as much as I have ended up back at square one (pretty much), I think it’s important to keep an open mind about the other options out there – you can’t remember things? Write things down, or try a computer – get to know a system that seems to work for you, then make it your own. Find a system, break it (so you know how it works), put it all back together the way you want it.

Remembering and forgetting is no longer a simple case of person to person – it’s now about internet, computing, and flexibility.

x x


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