Deleting Our Past

It’s a pretty well-established fact that the new social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) have permanently changed the way we think about on-line privacy. But I’m not sure I had thought about it in terms as stark as those Jeffrey Rosen uses in his New York Times Magazine article, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting” (my emphasis for scary effect in italics):

We’ve known for years that the Web allows for unprecedented voyeurism, exhibitionism and inadvertent indiscretion, but we are only beginning to understand the costs of an age in which so much of what we say, and of what others say about us, goes into our permanent — and public — digital files. The fact that the Internet never seems to forget is threatening, at an almost existential level, our ability to control our identities; to preserve the option of reinventing ourselves and starting anew; to overcome our checkered pasts.

In a recent book, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,” the cyberscholar Viktor Mayer-Schönberger cites Stacy Snyder’s case as a reminder of the importance of “societal forgetting.” By “erasing external memories,” he says in the book, “our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experiences and adjust our behavior.” In traditional societies, where missteps are observed but not necessarily recorded, the limits of human memory ensure that people’s sins are eventually forgotten. By contrast, Mayer-Schönberger notes, a society in which everything is recorded “will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them.” He concludes that “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.”It’s often said that we live in a permissive era, one with infinite second chances. But the truth is that for a great many people, the permanent memory bank of the Web increasingly means there are no second chances — no opportunities to escape a scarlet letter in your digital past. Now the worst thing you’ve done is often the first thing everyone knows about you.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Terrified yet? These kinds of stories constantly remind me how lucky I am that Facebook didn’t come along until I was already out of college. Not that anything I did in college was really so terrible, mind you, aside from being your typical awkward and sometimes idiotic teenager. The poor Star Wars Kid is guilty of nothing other than geeky exuberance, but who wants that permanently recorded for posterity?

Rod Dreher wonders how he will have to raise his kids when the expectation now is that your every action — harmless or otherwise — could end up permanently recorded:

What about angry ex-girlfriends or ex-boyfriends, who spill in spite secrets shared in confidence, or who at least have the power to? Who can ever relax knowing that everyone we meet is a potential spy and saboteur, whether they mean to be or not? What kind of people will we become when our pasts have the power to tyrannize us? Only the shameless and the guiltless will be truly free.

It sounds melodramatic, but is it really? You all discuss while I go put on my tinfoil hat.

(Photo Illustration by James Wojcik)


  • Margaret Cabaniss

    Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at

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