Digital Forgetting and Understanding


Julian Gewirtz
Julian Gewirtz

Earlier this week, the Washington Post published an article by Julian Gewirtz and Adam Kern. I enjoyed their discussion of digital remembering.

Digital Longevity

Julian and Adam note:

We just graduated from college. We’ve got thousands of pictures on Instagram, conversations on Gchat and status updates on Facebook to show for it — a digital record of that long week, seemingly each fragment of thought and every step of the day we graduated.

Adam B Kern
Adam B Kern

They are members of the first generation to have grown up with the Internet …

The first generation that got suspended from school because of a photo of underage drinking posted online. The first generation that could talk in chat rooms to anyone, anywhere, without our parents knowing. The first generation that has been “tracked” and “followed” and “shared” since childhood.

Julian and Adam observe that their generation face significant issues about digital longevity … “our former selves may live on beyond their real existence”. They point out that “Thanks to technology, someone can know more about you than you know about yourself — or, at least, think that they do”.

They add:

Nearly the entire lives of our generation have been catalogued and stored in servers, with the most mature and carefully thought-through utterances indistinguishable, as data, from thoughtless pre-teen rants. We gave much of this information willingly, if half-wittingly. A fact of being a young person today is that our data are out there forever, and we must find ways to deal with that.

They propose three ways of dealing with digital longevity. I like their third path:

we learn to care less about what people did when they were younger, less mature or otherwise different.

This requires that their generation takes the lead:

in negotiating a “cultural treaty” endorsing a new value, related to privacy, that secures our ability to have a past captured in data that is not held to be the last word but seen in light of our having grown up in a way that no one ever has before. Growing up, that is, on the record.

Digital Forgetting


I thought Julian and Adam brought a refreshing insight to the discussion of digital identity. We do need to find ways of addressing the social e-portfolio that we create when we access online resources that will curate us in the Cloud. I like the idea of a cultural treaty.

In other times, communities held a shared oral history as the basis for their selective indignation.

I am thinking that oral and digital memories can be used with sensitivity, recognising that personal identity is dynamic. Perhaps digital forgetting and understanding will be the way to do this, as Julian and Adam suggest.

This does not mean that any form of online behaviour is unconditionally acceptable.  In a digital age, we all have responsibilities as members of a tolerant, civil society.

Photo Credits

Julian Gewirtz (LinkedIn)

Adam B Kern (The Harvard Crimson, Gregory Johnston)

Sharing music, Roman style (Ed Yourdon, CC BY-SA 2.0) (For a note about the use of this picture in other blog posts see here.)


Julian and Adam appear in The 22 Most Impressive Students At Harvard Right Now.

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