THE LAW OF FORGETTING

Venetian_imageThere is real memory and there is digital memory. There are laws about remembering and there are laws easy to forget. There is Moore’s Law and there is The Law of Forgetting.

Here in self-seducing Silicon Valley one can rarely get through a day without some idealist parroting Moore’s Law to justify this or that new business model. The Moore-in-the-law is Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, and his law states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years. The consequence of Moore’s Law is that the memory capacity of the personal computer doubles biannually, thereby perpetually stoking the engine of the Silicon Valley economy.

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus suggested that the opposite of every supposed truth represented an equally valid truth. So what is the antithesis to the truth of Moore’s Law? It is the idea that the more memory we pack onto our digital devices, the less memory we have for other things. This is called the Law of Forgetting.

I stumbled upon this Law of Forgetting earlier this week, while listening to a speech by Jaron Lanier at Berkeley’s Hillside Club. Lanier is a Silicon Valley technologist, best known around here for inventing something called “virtual-reality”. But his Hillside speech was more memorable for what he forgot to say than for anything he actually did say.

Lately, Lanier has become a critic of Silicon Valley’s self-seduction which he describes, memorably, as “digital narcissism”. According to Lanier, Silicon Valley has embraced itself with the notion of perfect technology, perfect bytes, the perfect digitalization of music. The inventor of virtual-reality says, with Heraclitean logic, that the reality of things is quite the opposite of what everyone in Silicon Valley says. Personal computers, Lanier argues, are “pretty shitty” -- they require us to pretend that they work while simultaneously creating a “volunteer slave economy” of users, all ironing out their bugs.

Lanier’s digital narcissism theme is intriguing.  But the Silicon Valley renegade forgot to speak about the past. While sketching his ideas about digital narcissism, Lanier forgot to mention the Narcissus of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a naïve young man whose sad ending might be interpreted as a warning to all those naïve young Narcissuses of Silicon Valley. And Lanier failed to remind his audience about Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissicism (1979), the classic study of an entire culture in love with itself.

The truth of California's Silicon Valley is of collective amnesia. Most of us in the Valley, including critics like Jaron Lanier, can’t remember anything from the pre-digital past. That old jeremiad Christopher Lasch described this as the “waning of the sense of historical time”.  We are governed by the Law of Forgetting. We know the future, but we don't know the past.