My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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to remember or to forget? on babies and beer goggles

to remember or to forget? on babies to beer goggles

At a dinner party long ago, a debate emerged about the importance of forgetting versus the techno-utopian desire to remember *everything*. As the animation level of the debate approached unmanageable, a woman at the table confronted the most vocal of the anti-forgetting people, asking him if he was the first child. He looked at her oddly and said no, the second. She smirked and told him that he should be thankful for the power of forgetting because no woman in her right mind would ever go through childbirth a second time if she could clearly recall the pain involved. Needless to say, her point resulted in many muted giggles.

Lately, i’ve been reading too much about the history of courtship in the United States. “From Front Porch to Back Seat” offers great insight into just how brand new the 1950s image of “dating” is. Go back 100 years and no proper girl would ever be caught dead out in public with a suitor. Girls chose which boys could call on them (boys had no choice) and these calls were taken at the girl’s home, initially with a chaperone present. Working class girls had no parlors and thus couldn’t take calls; they met boys in public spaces. Rich girls, irritated by the limits of traditional courtship, began rebelling by taking to the streets with their beaus. Slowly, from there, public dating became the common practice for courtship. Ironically, what is now perceived as solidly middle class in terms of practice originated from working class and was solidified by the rebellious upper class.

Public dating began a radical re-gendering of courtship. The move out of the home (viewed as a woman’s sphere) into the public (viewed as a man’s sphere) shifted everything. This was further magnified by the fact that the move to public required money and money was boy’s money. While calling-driven courtship was controlled by women, men began calling the shots when it moved out of the home. They chose who they wished to date, they controlled where the date was to take place, etc. The norms also shifted as girls became popular by dating as many good-looking men as possible (and vice versa). Dating was not about love or companionship, but solely about status. The iconic image seems to forget that.

Part of how this image of dating was solidified in mainstream culture as normative has to do with mainstream media’s perpetuation of the cultural norms. Magazines, TV, and movies all perpetuated this image of dating, providing structure to the ritual. Today, as we are caught in our own confusions about courtship, we long for the idyllic image of dating that never really existed, the image that the media “forgot” to convey. We no longer have social scripts for how to go about mating. I love asking teens and college students about dating… The term seems so antiquated, so wrong. Sure, teens have boyfriends and girlfriends, but ask them how they met or how they knew they were dating and all lines get blurry real fast. Hell, ask most 20-somethings about how they went from a hookup to being partners – they have no idea either.

While we continue to perpetuate an image of dating as an institution, the realities of courtship are quite fuzzy. A few too many drinks and Mr. Playboy takes home the hottie in the corner; the hottie thinks a relationship’s brewing while Mr. Playboy blames beer goggles. Close friends begin adding benefits to their friendship – is a Relationship emerging or is it solely Friends with Benefits? Ideally, we’d all be good at communicating the state of our relationships with others, but the truth is that we suck at reflexivity.

Then again, do we really want precise communicative efficacy? Sometimes, the fuzzy line is more desirable. What if you don’t know what you want? Land-o-gray is a hell of a lot more simpler than full commitment or complete anti-commitment. Besides, plausible deniability is a girl’s best friend. But there’s a difference between the blurred space and the incomplete crystalized image from the silver screen. The further we move from the space in which that was created, the more we “remember” something that never existed.

Now, imagine that you had to face every uncomfortable dating situation ever for the rest of your life, every awkward disconnect, every terrible blind date, every painfully unpleasant interaction. Would you ever date again? All around me, my friends are becoming dating-phobic because they’re terrified of messing up one more time. I watch as they swing to extremes, overcompensating for the last relationship disaster. And they don’t even remember the details of what went wrong! (Which reminds me… you out there… you really hated him when you broke up the first time, the second time AND the third time… don’t get back together just because he’s being nice now!)

While i’m all down for remembering everything i ever read, just imagine the havoc wreaked on courtship by remembering today. First off, you “remember” interactions that never took place because you read the details of her blog before you even met. Next, all of those blog entries you wrote reminds you of your own emotional naiveté because you were in lurve. And now you have the snarky emails and IMs and texts that show that you’re a complete dickwad and are the root cause of all relationship woes. You have the video of your breakup that you watch over and over again to see what you could’ve done better so that you don’t feel like such shit. Oh, and you have shelves of DVDs that prove that your relationship looks nothing like what “normal” relationships should look like (proof through Molly Ringwald). Somehow, just as you’re starting to feel better, you think that it couldn’t _really_ hurt to look at her MySpace. Only you found that she erased your very existence in an effort to delete the relationship out of memory. And you wonder why you’ve stolen every emo MP3 out there.

I don’t think it’s just babymaking that we want to forget. There are good reasons for the tried-and-true attitude that you can’t immediately just be friends post-breakup. The reason you take time away is to forget. The reason you want to forget is because it’s how you make sure your ego doesn’t go suicidal on you. The natural decay of negative memories is quite useful. The re-organizing of your past allows you to be confident in who you are today. (We all remember middle school sucking, but do you really remember the details of it or just an abstraction? Statistics suggest that the #1 feeling you felt was boredom, but i suspect that’s not the first emotion that comes to mind when you think of le sucktitude of middle school.)

Media has made it difficult for cultural memories to fade. We don’t remember the days of house calls for courtship because society moved away from that rather quickly (and few read beyond the Crib Notes of 11th grade English texts). But thanks to TV and movies, we “remember” past practices and norms. Does this mean that culture will have a much harder time evolving with the times? Or perhaps it means that there will be an ever-increasing disconnect between the generations because even though your mom didn’t fall in love like Ingrid Bergman, she’s still gonna imagine that this is how it’s supposed to be. How does the non-forgetfulness of archival media influence our culture’s ability to shift over time?

We are building technology with the implicit desire to remember everything. Every interaction, every feeling, every idea. Why? Perhaps this isn’t such a good thing. I for one would like to see my digital memories fade into hearts and flowers. Of course, being the ever-benevolent giver, technology has decided to invent a different solution: “the memory pill” (guaranteed to obliterate negative memories so that you can overcome the memory of murdering your wife… err… i mean, PTSD…). Better living through chemistry and technology, right? Right??? Bueller?

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20 comments to to remember or to forget? on babies and beer goggles

  • I’m not sure if this is directly relevant but your question about an “ever-increasing disconnect between the generation” immediately reminded me of an astonishing interview on BBC radio this week. The founder of a US movement/phenomenon called, I believe, Purity Balls, (whereby fathers formally contract with their daughters to guard their virtue) seemed to be keen on imposing a remembered version of idyllic, chaste, courtship upon the younger generation.

    One motivation would appear to be the protection of their daughters from potential bad memories, but in doing so I’m not sure they can guarantee that the memories thus created will be good ones. Indeed I wonder if the actual intervention will soldify the memories just as much as we, by the increased online documentation of our modern day relationships, guarantee our future memories of them.

  • Well, there are two points here – ability to remember, and actual active, cultural memory. Recorded media has certainly improved our ability to remember. But I think in many spheres it’s accelerating cultural forgetting.

    Think about music – for a while, it was only available live. This limited the variety of music that a culture could accommodate at any one time, and so limited the pace of change. So a European music lover in 1875 would have a lot in common with one 50 years back.

    Recorded music broke that wide open. The volume of music available is so great that it’s not possible to keep up with all of the music from the last five years, much less the last 50. Pop music has always been about old wine in new bottles, and few Elvis fans had heard the black music he was drawing on. I think that aspect of musical culture has only grown in importance.

    (Music’s a special case, of course – the whole Western tradition grew around written music, so the anxiety of memory/influence was always around.)

    But of course, backward-looking analysis, while much easier than forward-looking, will tend to focus the minds on what’s been lost. It’s much harder to understand what new cultural phenomena have been enabled by an infinite potential memory, but here’s an example: Moby’s “Play” was extremely problematic in terms of how it appropriated its samples of gospel and blues, but on the other hand, how many times has pop music revived not just the figurative but the literal voice of the past?

  • danah,

    I’ve been writing/talking for a few years now about what happens with the spread of always-on recording tech (life-logging, sousveillance, digital memory enhancement, etc. etc.), and I always try to make the point that *not* remembering is an important part of how we get along. My usual line is something like

    “Human relationships are lubricated by the consensual misremembering of slights.”

    We learn to forget and forgive; it’s a sign of maturity. I wonder if these kinds of technologies will being unable to forget will make forgiveness itself a rarity.

    Sadly, if it becomes possible, it will happen. The competitive advantages accruing to the instant access to details that seemed like ephemera at the time but are now critical will be overwhelming. Remembering everything is the unfortunate side-effect of wanting to remember important stuff, but not knowing until later what that important stuff might be.

    -Jamais

  • latemodel

    I like forgetting. Without it, you can’t really learn, by which I mean turning lots of fairly mundane information into useful knowledge about the way something works. You come up with a model in your head, and then the model takes primacy over the facts at hand. In principle you don’t have to forget the instances that you learned your model from, but you do have to make the model more important.

    It sounds ludicrous, but in a very real way it’s how we deal with the world. It’s how we learn things long term (driving, dating, coding); but crucially, it’s also how we interact with our surroundings, how we deal with the world moment to moment.

    I know that there’s a computer in front of me, with a screen and a keyboard. I find it useful to keep those facts in mind while typing this reply, but I’m throwing away vast amounts of information to get to that conclusion. I don’t care about the precise character of the nerve impusles from my fingertips, or the feedback from the muscles in my arms, or the pattern of light that my cornea is forming on my retina. And I forget them, so that I don’t recall what those nerves in my finger were doing a moment ago.

    I think that’s great. If I paid too much attention to those photons, my entire world would dissolve the moment I glanced at the book next to me. In fact, I’d get seasick as my eyeballs jiggle from the vibration of my own heartbeat. And that, would get in the way of typing this reply.

  • So I wonder, what IS forgetting and why so many of us are so reflexively against it? I think that’s because the whole concept of forgetting something is somewhat akin to the concept of loss. Loss of a memory in this case. Memories are perceived as precious items by most of us (idealized and romanticized as well) and loss of precious items can be very painful. As humans we tend to actually remember more bad things than good things, but it’s the good memories that can be oh so delectable. So when talking about memories, the ones that come to mind first for most people (I am not talking about PTSD victims here) are those we want to remember, not ones we’d like to forget.

    Back to the idea of loss. Many anti-forgetting people are also ones, I suspect, that are against any form of data-loss. Those that wouldn’t want their RSS reader to drop old entries that they haven’t gotten to, or ones that would think of deleting all the unread email in their inbox with horror. It might all be going back to the overarching fear of “missing something important” when you don’t know what that important thing is. Accepting loss, any kind of loss, be that of your favorite pen, a trinket you just bought or your wallet – is difficult and most of us don’t deal with it so well. Reconciling voluntary loss of data can be just as difficult. Same with accepting that certain memories will be lost.

    I am guessing things get even more complicated when you start dealing with memories that can be the root cause of PTSD or are lost through amnesia. Judging by how long it took me to accept that I will never know what happened one evening last october because of amnesia, accepting that kind of loss can be difficult. This is so even though I suspect the memory is bad enough that I’d want to forget it once I found out what actually happened. It’s the old problem where memories that may have been sweet once suddenly become painful for a time and then turn back to sweet again later. When they are painful, you might want to forget them, but wouldn’t you regret it later? “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” seems a good media summary of that one.

  • Bertil

    You might be confusing archiving and remembering: one is a technological decision, now possible; the other is an attention choice. I’m not sure you know what you want to remember later—and Jean-Noel Jeanneney is positive historians don’t. My social life is pretty much my mailbox, and I used to have an exhaustive archive of my mails (delete thanks to a f$%#ing Windows error), and now I proudly use Gmail. An example of a mail I don’t want to read now, but I suspect I’d like to go through later, is the one where my girlfriend dumped me—sad memories, but a handful list of what not to do in a relationship. (Funny story, she was so ambiguous I had no idea what to think of it; thankfully, AdSense postered nothing but ads for dating sites next to it, so I assumed she was not the only one being unclear, I just had to learn the cypher. Creepy? No: convenient. Am I over-sharing? Sorry)

    This distinction might be relevant for the coming generation that doesn’t care to face an employer handing MySpace photos of them being wasted: “Sure it is available—but why do you care?” Would the girls of that generation rationalize the pain, and make the conscious effort to balance it with the future joy of having a child, instead of following a hindsight bias? Or are they fooled by they youth, and will regret every minute of blogging? What happens in the head of women who decide to have their second one just weeks after? I’m not a women, so I definitely cannot do more then ask the question.

    You write “plausible deniability is a girl’s best friend” and, indeed this debate appears very sex-oriented to me: most of my male friends adopted Gmail because of the archive feature (and also, because I am a bully); all of my female friends (but one) labeled it as creepy right away. There is a strong technical gap, though—and the one adopting is an engineer.

    Oh: and I love your story of sentiments; it completes elegantly what I hear on the local NPR here about the invention of the French kiss (an Hollywood ellipse for sex) or of gallantry itself (XVth century Ladies seemingly absurd demands to hear romantic poems, hence not to have to reply as this would interrupt the flow.) Would you be interested in a translation? Or maybe your French improved since November?

  • that depiction of dating a hundred years ago sounds so victorian. and there’s something that seems skewed about it, maybe misrepresentative. but i don’t have data to back that up. if you go back further in time, or away from wasp culture, do you see yet another shift?

    i’m not sure where i would get this expectation, but i’m guessing the further back in time you go the less of a middle class there was by percentage. if that’s true, then even fewer people had parlors and would relate that way. but maybe when you go back even further you start to see more arranged marriages and people just pairing who grew up together in smaller communities?

    it just seems odd that a long term trend would be to more loose socialization, my expectation would be historically things must have been more loose. but maybe looseness has more to do with urban, anonymous communities where we don’t already know each other.

  • joeblo

    As Bertil says there’s a big difference between archiving and remembering. I don’t think it’s even possible to keep a fraction of what you’ve done in a single week in your head at one time without a lot of editing. The editing is fundamental to the remembering… as the stories we tell about/to ourselves are simplified and fit into a narrative dynamic that pleases us. There are plenty of times that the real events don’t fit into that narrative, and they are mostly forgotten, or alternately, remembered as turning/counter points to our normal lives.

    I do find the idea of a searchable archive ala gmail to be attractive, if you ever really want to look back at what happened, and perhaps a scientist should. Not that one’s personal life is the place to start this, but just looking back at a personal journal can either bring back old feelings, or remind you of dreams of future past. The real point is that the time it would take to actually relive (by proxy) a portion of your life would take so much time you wouldn’t be living in the present. The reverie of packing each individual thing in a box is enough to get most people to hire movers.

    If nothing else such an archive could be an invaluable tool to future historians. As they look back at the emergence of ‘the hookup’ dating paragigm, they’ll have far more typical data than we seem to have of the victorian… florid letters or not. Actually, I wonder if SMS, voice, and email really contain as much or more of our true feelings than the long winded letters of yore.

  • deb

    So appropriate for me right now. This was a great article on dating – the history and customs thereof – and how it changes through time and how freaking convoluted and crazy it can be. Babies? Try breaking up with a narcissist (not that my latest was, but I have been there).

  • Forgetting is so much more important than the issue of erasing online trails, so thanks for raising it.

    I cultivate the art of forgetting. It is so much more healthy than remembering, and I have always felt that a memory forgotten leaves a useful imprint or impression, much as active compounds are believed to work in homeopathy. Anything more is just wasted RAM.

    In fact, specifically in relation to creative processes, I am a believer in throwing away early iterations entirely and starting again in order not to be burdened with prior art. Forgetting does much the same thing in life – forgotten memories leave residual lessons or imprints that can’t be erased (so you still know fire is ot, for example, even if you try to forget it), but your conscious mind is free to re-think and re-interpret without prejudice.

    Also, there is a very good reason why trauma responses in people often involve forgetting – or at least a reluctance to actively remember. It can be an adaptation.

  • Hi danah,
    I agree. Forgetting is important. Without it we’d be lost. In order to build social applications that do not suck (ie that are not autisitic in nature) we will have to engineer in the insight that forgetting has personal and social importance.

    Also, this issue of the abilty and habit of forgetting is related to our ability to be aware and not aware at the same time. Which is part of the ‘sociable blind eye’ that I wrote about while riffing on Building Social Applications after reading Stowe Boyd’s recent talk at LIFT: http://www.niall-larkin.com/blog/?p=7

  • An attention choice. That was right on, Bertil.
    Just wanted to point out that biologically, we are wired to “forget” or at least, to adapt our memories and move on. All our experiences are wired in there, to some extent, but we don’t have to pay *attention* to them – and that’s a mechanism of protection.
    I had a remotely connected post on this theme here:
    http://humans.scienceboard.net/archives/2007/02/02/245/
    A very interesting discussion. Thanks!

  • what about those of us who can remember every agonizing detail?
    eidetic…
    its a bitch

  • I agree with Irina that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is tackling this head-on, which is why it’s funny that an “anti-memory pill” should be in development so shortly after the film’s release.

    Footnotes:

    * Both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard described forgetting as a necessary art of freedom. An art, a deliberate practice, not even something that can be entrusted to the smooth muscles of the unconscious.

    * Probably some of the fear of dating has to do with the narcissistic/”Taoist” model of dating, which is totally synchronous with MySpace etc: you aren’t supposed to be actively “looking,” and you aren’t supposed to show any sign of desperation — but the end result is just an idiotic pretense of invulnerability, combined with (for example) online profiles that are obviously pleading for attention.

    * My friend Tom, with whom I agree on this matter, thinks that most couples who don’t have a semi-mythical story about how they first met (or at least how they first “became interested” or “knew it was right”) don’t last.

  • Coinky-dink, major.

    Ideally, we’d all be good at communicating the state of our relationships with others, but the truth is that we suck at reflexivity. Then again, do we really want precise communicative efficacy? Sometimes, the fuzzy line is more desirable. What if you don’t know what you want?

    HELL YES I want precise communicative efficacy, ESPECIALLY after the vaguest “was it a relationship or even a matter of slight sexual attraction at all or was his motive […endless list of possibilities…]” experience in my adult life, which I finally sighed and put the brakes on this morn, mournfully, since despite this I liked the guy and he liked me, that was obvious, what was NOT was WHAT HE WANTED. We’re talking about someone who wouldn’t even tell me “I don’t know what I want”, ok? There’s absolutely nothing good about grey fuzz, because that gives me bupkis in the way of behavioural clues. How the hell was I supposed to act? Thinking he was shy – even though in the beginning he STARTED this mess – I made a bold move and then things went poofty. I think he dropped REALLY vague hints I’d not the ability to pick up, or maybe my brain purposefully-by-accident didn’t receive their meaning.

    CLARITY, precious, precious CLARITY, wherefore art thou in Love?
    Give me communication any day, I’d rather have mental sex than physical anyway, though ideally both would be nice, I am terribly wonderfully defined by my tendency towards intense psycholagny.

  • CLARITY, precious, precious CLARITY, wherefore art thou in Love?
    Give me communication any day, I’d rather have mental sex than physical anyway, though ideally both would be nice, I am terribly wonderfully defined by my tendency towards intense psycholagny.

  • This was a very interesting article. I personally think the modern form of ‘dating’ doesn’t work, even though I admit the older form of ‘courting’ had limits placed on it that were certainly not necessary.
    I, personally, believe in courtship as far as a heart decision goes (in other words, I date only because I’m interested in getting married, and seeing if I am ‘compatible’ with a particular girl.) I also don’t start dating until I know her very well as a friend (if possible) because that gives me a good idea to know whether I would LIKE to pursue a relationship with her or not.
    Of course, this ideal requires for her to have the same seriousness about dating. Not so difficult, though, if you go for the right kind of girl (He he.)
    And lastly, my dating is a LOT easier because I don’t believe in sex before marriage. This actually makes the relationship more fun, easier, and able to grow and develop more naturally.
    My 2c!

  • This was a very interesting article. I personally think the modern form of ‘dating’ doesn’t work, even though I admit the older form of ‘courting’ had limits placed on it that were certainly not necessary.
    I, personally, believe in courtship as far as a heart decision goes (in other words, I date only because I’m interested in getting married, and seeing if I am ‘compatible’ with a particular girl.) I also don’t start dating until I know her very well as a friend (if possible) because that gives me a good idea to know whether I would LIKE to pursue a relationship with her or not.
    Of course, this ideal requires for her to have the same seriousness about dating. Not so difficult, though, if you go for the right kind of girl (He he.)
    And lastly, my dating is a LOT easier because I don’t believe in sex before marriage. This actually makes the relationship more fun, easier, and able to grow and develop more naturally.
    My 2c!

  • portrait artist

    I�m not sure though if the word �coutship� will apply to all people regardless of this race. I once tried online dating and there was this guy who asked me if I can be his girlfriend. I told him to do a little courting � verb form of courtship � first. Imagine him leaving in panic because he thought I was sending him to court for some reasons. I guess let�s start things out by defining what courtship means.

  • what about those of us who can remember every agonizing detail?
    eidetic…
    its a bitch