The Need to Forget – Less Is More

Earlier in the year, I came across an article in New Scientist titled “Forgetfulness is key to a healthy mind”. In this article a case was described:

A 42-year-old woman from California, AJ remembers every day of her life since her teens in extraordinary detail. … AJ is locked in a cycle of remembering that she describes as a “running movie that never stops”. Even when she wants to, AJ cannot forget.” … “She described her constant recall as “non-stop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting” and as “a burden” of which she was both warden and victim.

The syndrome was given the name “hyperthemestic syndrome” (from the Greek “thymesis”, for remembering) by the neuropsychologist James McGaugh and his colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, who investigated this case.

The article describes this malady that affects a handful of people like AJ. It also presents a convincing argument from neuroscientists as to why the process of forgetting is as important as the process of remembering. As humans, we have developed ways to remember important stuff, but not cloud our memories with all of the nitty-gritty details that swamp AJ on a regular basis. I also saw this situation reported elsewhere on the web. More recently I discovered that AJ (aka Jill Price) has written a book about her experiences.

The article also quotes Dan Schacter of Harvard University who says “A system that records every detail willy-nilly and makes that information accessible on an ongoing basis is one that will result in mass confusion.” Dan says ‘we forget because the brain has developed strategies to weed out irrelevant or out-of-date information. Efficient forgetting is a crucial part of having a fully functioning memory.’

Almost immediately, as I was reading this article, my thoughts turned to the computer systems we have in place in most organizations. It is interesting to think about our computer systems in a similar manner. There are striking parallels to the concept of information overload brought on by the massive digital data and artifacts stored in our organizations. Do we really need to return all of the versions of all of the documents that match the search criteria when looking for something in our repositories? How do we determine which is the best version to start from the final one with our best positions negotiated away or an earlier version?

With the cost of storage falling dramatically from year to year we have been accumulating reams of information (or should I say ‘digital reams’ to avoid the cheap pun). Our Document Management systems and other repositories have accumulated tens and hundreds of millions of documents and the quest to store more continues.

So, as I do often, I went looking for other material on ‘the need to forget’. After wading through the usual pile of material that Google churns up, I found a faculty research working paper from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. This paper, Useful Void: The Art of Forgetting in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing, speaks to issues of a more broader societal nature that result from our obsession to store everything. They use, as examples: Google – “In March 2007, Google confirmed that since its inception it had stored every search query every user ever made and every search result she ever clicked on. Google remembers forever” (p. 3); our obsession with keeping all digital photos we take – good or bad – just in case; companies that keep our air travel enquiries – whether we purchase a ticket or not; the information stored on credit bureau databases; and a variety of data services that store and hoard information on individuals.

It occurred to me, however, that we are doing the same thing in our own data collection and retention practices within organizations. Not only are we storing all of the digital photos we take; we are also storing draft versions of documents and other objects ‘just in case’. As one lawyer friend put it to me, we have moved from ‘just in time’ to ‘just in case’.

In this paper, the author, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, does a good job of illustrating the problem of ‘remembering everything’ on a personal and societal level. I posit that this is true, as well, for groups and organizations (read as law firms and in-house legal teams). We store everything because it is cheaper and faster than ever to do so. Paper files, in their analog form, are harder to organize, search and retrieve relevant information. With the cost of storage dramatically falling every year we now have ways of storing huge amounts of digital artifacts in ways we could not five or ten years ago. So we do.

Viktor claims that data retention is now the default and suggests we need to reverse this. The fact that everything we say / discuss is retained causes us to pause and reflect on the chilling effect this has on the development of thought. He points out that information is often retained even when its accuracy is disputed. He goes on to explore the wider issues this presents when GPS and RFID technology in our cell phones, cameras and cars add to the datasets that track our every move and record them over time. He claims that “living in a world in which our lives are being recorded and records are being retained, in which societal forgetting has been replaced by precise remembering, will profoundly influence how we view our world, and how we behave in it”.

This leads me to believe there are a number of issues we must address in our corporate information technology, information management, knowledge management and records management practices and programs. Do we need to retain everything? Do our massive collection aid or hinder our KM objectives? What are the privacy and ethical issues associated with data retention – on our employees / staff as well as on customers? Does the fact that everything we do is being watched affect our behaviour (what we say and do)?

All of this needs to be examined in the context of our records management and archival processes as well.

This raises a number of additional questions. Do we need to prune information from our vast databases so that we create better functioning systems? Do the strategies we use in our massive databases differ significantly because of the raw computing power that can be applied for organizing and searching these repositories? Is David Weinberger right when he claims “Everything is miscellaneous” and we should just allow the computer systems to store, sort and reposition / display digital artifacts when we need to retrieve them? Is David Gelernter right when he challenges us (in his manifesto) to stop using old metaphors such as the ‘filing cabinet’ in the new computer medium (after all these new systems have affordances not possessed by those we are replacing)?

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on these issues.


  1. There’s a reason that the disciplines of Records Management and Archives exist. Thinking strategically and deliberately about what documents/information should be retained is important. It also frees an organisation to discard documents which do not add to the total of knowledge.

    In the paper world, physical space prompts us to act. In the digital realm, it takes effort to manage files. It’s just so much easier to let old e-mail accumulate, to dump drafts into folders outside of the document management system. What are we risking if we keep everything?

    Autism is a condition where the sufferer cannot filter signals received from the environment (an oversimplification, I know). Every sound, sight, and sensation comes in full blast – too much data leading to the inability to process, and the system halts. I fear that David Weinberger’s solution dooms us to institutional autism, in the long run.