Internet, Endless Memory and the Practice of Forgiveness

When the Internet never forgets, the practice of forgiveness is all the more important. In response to the ubiquity of the Internet and its incomparable ability to remember, a recent European Union Court ruled in favor of a man who requested that Google remove references to a financial issue he had in his past. Information revealed in Internet searches continued to plague him even after he had rectified his financial situation. The ruling is often referred to as the “Right to be Forgotten.”

In the recent book, Delete, author Viktor Mayer-Schönberger cautions readers about the consequences of shifting from a human pattern of forgetting to a digital age of never forgetting. He recommends we reclaim the virtue of forgetting. He writes,

Forgetting plays a central role in human decision-making. It let’s us act in time, cognizant of, but not shackled by, past events. Through perfect memory we may lose a fundamental human capacity–to live and act firmly in the present (p 12).

Without the ability to forget, individuals and communities are forever tied to and even determined by past events (one’s that they may not have even chosen to share or re-share).  Mayer-Schöenberger recounts numerous stories about individuals who can’t get jobs because internet searches turn up poor adolescent decisions (often in the form of photos). As Christians, might forgiveness be a more salient virtue?

One response to the Internet’s failure to forget, may resemble a parental “I told you so” clause. Perhaps, we ought to start seeing the internet as an omnipresent god who sees everything and then broadcasts it. In other words, if you don’t want God (or Google) to see it, don’t put it in an email, on a post, in a snapchat, etc. Unfortunately, either the speed of the internet seduces us into posting without proper discernment (read: inherently, sinful imperfect creatures) or more likely most us believe we can control the privacy of our digital communications (read: prideful creatures).

It is often teenagers who are greatly affected in this new era of social media.  A new study by Drexel University reports that more than 50% of teens surveyed “had exchanged sexually explicit text messages . . . as minors.”  Around 25% of these messages contained images. Most of the teens did not understand the legal ramifications of such behavior. Regardless of the software platform (traditional text sms message, Snapchat, or forums like Streetchat), digital records are not “forgotten” or “anonymous.” The Department of Health and Human Services writes in a report related to adolescent sexual behaviors,

The ease with which sexual messages can be shared with very broad audiences suggests a greater potential to result in social stigma. . . . Moreover, the difficulty of permanently deleting all copies of a digital message means that risks to college admission, employment, and personal relationships could persist for many years.

While teens and young adults are often likely to be harmed by such postings, this issue is not limited to young people.

Robyn Henderson-EspinozaMany people have stories of posted information, emails sent, or messages exchanged that they now regret. Juan Enriquez, in a TedTalk asks us to consider our online life as a permanent tattoo. In general, we (young and old) should be more aware of digital permanence and strive to have our digital lives reflect the Christian values we support.

As a community, we might agree it is best to not look too deeply into other’s digital past so as to allow them the ability to act in the present, or even change (metanioa). What is required of us as we face digital endless memory is honing the practice or virtue of forgiveness. Forgiveness requires sincerity and penitence, often partnered with a show of responsibility for past acts and commitment to change. The practice of forgiveness does not require forgetting. In fact, it might require we re-member events in a manner that a static digital tattoo can never accomplish; one that requires grace and humility.

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