The end of forgetting

Imagine you interviewed for your dream job.

It went well, you made the final cut, and an official offer was imminent. But then, at the last minute, it falls apart. It turns out your soon-to-be manager glanced at your Facebook account, noticed some awkward photos from your college years, and decided you weren’t quite right for the position.

This is the kind of scenario Kate Eichhorn, a cultural and media studies professor at the New School, warns about in her new book called The End of Forgetting.

In this new digital world, she argues, everything is documented, everything is tagged, and anything can surface at any moment. We’re losing the ability to forget, and therefore we’re losing the ability to distance ourselves from our past.

How is this changing our lives? Is it disrupting our ability to try on new identities or experiment with new ideas? And what does it mean to forgive one another for the sins of our past in an age when nothing is truly deleted and nothing is erased?

A lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Eichhorn follows.

Sean Illing

How is digital technology — social media in particular — making it harder to forget?

Kate Eichhorn

Some people would argue there’s so much information now that we are forgetting more than ever before. Some people would also argue that because everything is online, we don’t need to remember.

This may be true, but simultaneously we’re also losing something: our ability to control what we carry forward into the future.

In a print culture, you could choose whether or not you were going to keep all your embarrassing photographs from high school and all your high school yearbooks. More importantly, if you kept anything, you could choose who you were going to share these documents with in your current life. Personally, I don’t have any photographs from that stage of my life, and if they are out there, retrieving them would require a lot of work. I doubt anyone would bother, and I’m happy that’s the case.

With digital photography, though, we have more images than ever before, and on social media platforms, where these images travel is increasingly out of our control. So had I been an adolescent in the 2000s, rather than the 1980s, I wouldn’t know what images of me were in circulation and what might reappear at any time. But this doesn’t mean that those of us who came of age in a print culture are not also at risk.

With the digitization of things like old printed high school yearbooks and automated facial recognition, we’re also beginning to see older images appearing in searches.

What’s changed? The ability of something from the past to interrupt the present has been amplified over the past decade due to technology. We’re just beginning to face the consequences.

Sean Illing

What happens to us when we’re unable to forget, or when we’re unable to escape the past?

Kate Eichhorn

I think it’s important to bear in mind here that I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not a quantitative researcher. As a culture and media studies scholar, I’m approaching this question somewhat more anecdotally. But let’s consider childhood development as an example.

Most of us have embarrassing things that happened when we were growing up or can recall stages that were particularly awkward. These are often funny, but not particularly incriminating things — for example, maybe you had a bad mullet haircut in early high school and would rather not have your current colleagues see photographs of that stage. But many people have more serious concerns.

Think about LGBTQ youth. In many communities, it is still the case that one has to leave home and execute a radical break with the past to come out.

My point is that there is something liberating about being able to forget the past and reinvent yourself in the present. Much of growing up, I would argue, is about reinventing yourself multiple times, and that requires being able to forget who you were six months ago, three years ago, 10 years ago.

So forgetting is ultimately about freedom. That’s what is important for me.


Sean Illing

Part of the joy of growing up is having the freedom to experiment, to try on new identities. But if everything is etched in stone, if every folly or mistake follows us around like a digital shadow, then what good is that freedom?

Kate Eichhorn

Some speculate that people may begin to self-censor at a much younger age as a result of this shift. It is difficult to say for certain. But since I completed this book two years ago, I think we’ve started to see how this may play out in the future.

A good example is the day of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s inauguration. Not surprisingly, someone went online with the intent of finding something embarrassing — something that might undermine her credibility. What did they find? They found a video of her dancing with friends in college.

The video was completely innocuous, and she handled that situation very well, but the incident is a sign of things to come. Moving forward, we’re going to see digital traces being used against people more often, and some people will be more negatively impacted by this shift than others.

Sean Illing

Another example that comes to mind is Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who allegedly had old pictures of him in blackface from 1984 surface earlier this year. These are exceptional cases in a lot of ways, but they may offer a glimpse of the future.

Kate Eichhorn

I think what we saw with Northam and with Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing last fall is going to happen more often. Of course, both Northam and Kavanaugh grew up in a print culture, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re suddenly poring over political figures’ printed high school yearbooks. Many of these yearbooks are now digitized, and people are increasingly aware that the past might be something we should be looking at, in particular in relation to public figures.

What I think is important about those three political examples is that in the case of AOC, she was just dancing with friends on a rooftop. Northam was allegedly doing blackface and Kavanaugh was making lewd remarks about one of his peers. To me, this suggests that the scale of what one has to do to have the past come back to interrupt them in the present is very different depending on the individual.

Sean Illing

That’s a scary point. The ability of bad-faith actors to take photos or comments or videos out of context and use them to damage people is extraordinary. People like Northam and Kavanaugh deserve the scrutiny, but it’s easy to see how this could get out of hand.

As you pointed out, not everyone will be impacted by their past in the same way. For public figures, the risks are clear enough. But for your average person who doesn’t live and work in the public spotlight, how should they think about this problem?

Kate Eichhorn

It’s true that we should hold public figures to a higher standard than private citizens, but it’s not just public figures who are already being impacted by this shift.

We know that college recruiters are looking at applicants’ profiles online and even digging into their social media to verify facts, and look for potentially incriminating information. Job recruiters do this as well. There are also already people charging parents money to clean up their teenager’s digital footprint. A growing number of college advising companies, for example, now offer digital footprint sanitation as a service.

In the future, this industry will likely grow. People who have the economic means to have their kids’ digital footprint managed will have a distinct advantage. I think that to a certain extent, forgetting online will be monetized, like everything else.

Sean Illing

Your book raises questions that we, as a society, have got to answer: How fair is it to judge someone by mistakes they made in their past? What can we forgive? Where is the line?

Kate Eichhorn

In the 1960s, psychologist Erik Erikson published several books in which he argued that in most societies, young people are granted what he calls a “psychosocial moratorium.” He argued that most people recognize that teenagers should have a moratorium not on experience, but on consequences.

In most countries, though not the United States, there are very strict regulations about not broadcasting the names of young offenders for this very reason. The rationale is that young people should be able to make a mistake, even a grave mistake, but still move on with their lives.

I would argue that this moratorium on consequences but not experiences has never really impacted everyone to the same extent. Many young African American men aren’t really granted this moratorium on consequences to the same extent as their white counterparts.

That said, I think most people would agree that ideally, all young people should have a time in their life when they can experiment and even make mistakes and not face the same consequences as adults.

In the digital sphere, it becomes much more difficult to realize this ideal.

Sean Illing

I think a lot about what it means to pay attention, to live in the present moment. Is the end of forgetting also the end of being present in our own lives?

Kate Eichhorn

Good question. I think you may be right. In 2009 to 2011, I was briefly on Facebook. I had just moved, and it seemed like a good way to stay in touch with old friends, but I soon found myself constantly pulled back into the past and not just the near past.

Within a few months, people I hadn’t talked to in 20 years had suddenly become my “friends” again. I found myself increasingly in the past, not the present, and eventually this is why I deactivated my account. I found it unsettling to be in the past to that extent.

This is also the most common complaint I encounter about platforms such as Facebook. We may be drawn to the past, but few people want to live in the past on a daily basis. At best, it’s a minor distraction, but at worst, it can prevent us from being fully present and engaged in our current lives and social relationships.

Sean Illing

What do you recommend to parents and young people in particular who are struggling to navigate this new digital landscape?

Kate Eichhorn

As a parent, one can create guidelines, but there’s no guarantee your kids will follow these guidelines when they’re online. I live with two teens, and despite having just written a book on this subject, I can’t say my advice or warnings are always heeded!

But just as dire is the problem of parents who overshare images of their children on social media platforms. This practice — what some people call “sharenting”— seems bound to come back to haunt parents in the future. I expect that in another 10 years, we’ll see a growing number of legal disputes between grown children and their parents who overshared images as they were growing up. What will be at stake is the right of these now-grown children to forget the past, and to have it forgotten by others.