For the first time in history, a total recall scenario has become reality. We store an exploding amount of data and every bit of it can be recovered. Technological advances like high-capacity storage make selecting or filtering information almost superfluous. However, our increasing reliance on online data storage begs the question what building an archive means and what the role of forgetting is.
Over the course of history, humans have relied on using external memory to support their personal memory, from the first written words to the first photographs. Today, technological developments have given rise to forms of artificial memory that endure almost indefinitely. We are witnessing an explosion of data and the global demand for high-capacity storage is exploding in order to feed the trend in big data processing. In this age of information, the internet offers the promise of a collective memory, generally accessible to all. Nevertheless, according to philosopher Boris Groys, endlessly storing information about things is not the same as preserving the things themselves. In Über das Neue, he uses the concept of “the archive” to describe the collection of everything that we preserve as meaningful, the collection that structures our culture, like traditional art museums and libraries. Choosing to add an object or an experience from everyday life to the archive is a conscious decision to save things for the future. The advent of online culture challenged this traditional idea of the archives. Everyone can endlessly (and mindlessly) create, store and recollect information in the archives of the internet. Classic mediators and curators of the archives no longer seem to be needed. Furthermore, Groys observes how with the fragmentation of online archival space, we are entering a “new virtual Middle Age”, where individuals are engaged in a series of self-installations and navigate a number of heterogeneous spaces (e.g. personal websites). Moreover, our online spaces are subject to privatization. The internet today is mainly dominated by a few private tech giants. They valorize the online archives, while traditional archives, such as museums and libraries, that used to have an image of being there for the public, are now struggling financially. These developments have led us to a transition period, in which we try to maintain classical structures such as museums, libraries and universities, while the impact of online archives is growing and the relationship between the two is a vague and uncertain one.By contrast, in an age of big data and increased digital storage capacity, it seems it is no longer possible to forget something. However, memory is a duality of remembering and forgetting. Especially in times of an overload of information and information avoidance, mechanisms to separate the relevant from the irrelevant are crucial. A common explanation of forgetting is that memories help us understand the world, rather than merely remember it. In this way, we seem to retain memories that are useful, valuable and relevant, while we forget information of lower value. There is thus no intrinsic reason why remembering should be given precedence over forgetting. Simply deleting information is not enough. While humans are capable of “smart forgetting”, AI still has to be trained to know when to keep old information and when to discard irrelevant information.Exploding storage capacity and the possibility of total recall do not make building archives and forgetting redundant. On the contrary, both are needed more than ever to navigate a world of endless information.