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Nietzsche’s ‘active forgetfulness’ in the face of the avalanche of digital data


“Big Data” has quickly become one of the most widely used, perhaps overused, phrases in the last couple of years and is in danger of becoming meaningless through its application to so many different things. Nevertheless it is clear that there is a lot of data around. Ian Hacking described the exponential increase in publication of statistical data between 1820 and 1840 as ‘the avalanche of printed numbers’. The avalanche of digital data dwarfs this billions of times over. An IBM scientist calculated that prior to 2003 5 exabytes (5 billion gigabytes) of data had been produced from the beginning of human history, by 2011 that amount was produced every two days, in 2013 that much is generated every ten minutes.

How this data is managed and who manages it are significant issues. What is undeniable is that most of us are becoming data managers of one kind or another. We have more data than ever about our bodies, lives and the world. The assumption from many is that more data is better, with more knowledge about our bodies, for instance, we can make better informed decisions and be healthier and happier. While it is clear that many people engaged in activities often brought under the umbrella term of “Quantified Self” undeniably get a great deal of enjoyment as well as health, personal and social benefits from generating and managing their own data there may be broader philosophical consequences. Once we have accessed such data on ourselves it is difficult to forget it it. This is increasingly the case as it seems that now almost everything is archived in one way or another. Digital storage means that almost nothing is ever lost and if it is we perhaps feel the loss more keenly because we are so unused to it. Might it be useful to clear our data banks occasionally?

When there were limits to storage we had to think carefully about what was really worth keeping. Today we store first and think whether it is useful later. Companies store vast quantities of data on us as customers and we increasingly keep archives on many aspects of our lives photographing the most insignificant social events, commenting on them and posting them online. There is an increasing group of people who use WebCams as part of their daily life recording virtually everything they do during the day. One man who has one functioning eye had a video camera and transmitter embedded into a prosthetic eye and calls hmself an ‘eyeborg‘. Taking this to its logical extreme is the research led by Chris Winter who received £25 million of funding from British Telecom to develop what he called the ‘soul catcher’. This will be a chip which is implanted into the eye and will record everything that an individual sees in their life. The team hope that this will be available by 2025. This has already been satirized/dramatized by the TV show Black Mirror in the episode ‘The Entire History of You’.

This level of archiving is likely to bring social and psychological consequences which are yet not yet clear. It is, however, perhaps time to start considering whether it might be beneficial to practice what Nietzsche described as ‘active forgetfulness’. This stops concerns laying heavy on us by aiding our psychic assimilation. For Nietzsche forgetfulness is an active capacity which enables us to make room for the new and for ‘superior’ functions. He claimed that there can be no happiness, calm or order without forgetfulness. Indeed, action itself is stifled by excessive remembering. Recently, scientists have developed a pill which they claim will erase bad memories. Such a pharmacological response is perhaps slightly worrying although it is indicative of the difficulty which people find with forgetting. We might, however, want to think about whether active forgetfulness on an individual and social level is necessary. Technology has made it extremely easy to save and archive data but it is increasingly difficult to lose things deliberately or accidentally. The messaging application Snapchat enables users to send text and photo messages which “self destruct” a few seconds after being sent but this will not pose a problem to the more tech savvy amongst us. Perhaps archiving does some of the work for us which Nietzsche suggested, by storing data in archives we do not need to concern ourselves with remembering it, we can be freed up for other tasks. But intrinsically connected to active forgetfulness is what might be called ‘active remembering’. This is, for Nietzsche, ‘an active desire not to let go, a desire to keep on desiring what has been’. This ownership over the past (or our memories of it) is what enables us to determine cause and effect and ultimately to become responsible for our own future. This is not, then, an anti-technological suggestion that we should reject archiving and tracking but that we should be actively engaged with it. We should decide what to keep, what is important and if technology is to serve us we should be in control of remembering.


38 thoughts on “Nietzsche’s ‘active forgetfulness’ in the face of the avalanche of digital data

  1. A fantastic read – thanks for all the links, lots to pursue. How best to be gatekeepers of our own digital lives/memories I wonder?

    Posted by Nathaniel Samson | October 10, 2013, 9:28 pm
  2. I am reminded that just because we can doesn’t mean we should

    Posted by davidatqcm | October 10, 2013, 11:47 pm
  3. Reblogged this on deejayiwan.

    Posted by deejayiwan | October 11, 2013, 12:06 am
  4. I find that as I add more and more years, active forgetfulness is becoming hyperactive forgetfulness. The benefit is that there is less to fret over and worry about.

    Posted by Karl Drobnic | October 11, 2013, 4:14 pm
    • Interesting! Does the old or the new stuff take precedence? I can still remember dreams I had when I was 5 years old but not sure what I ate last night.

      Posted by christopherharpertill | October 11, 2013, 4:18 pm
      • The older stuff is well embedded. The newer stuff doesn’t much stick unless I make a special effort. But I read an article that says we have a brain function (a chemical i think) especially dedicated to forgetting irrelevant stuff. We only need to remember where we parked the car until we go back to it. Then the brain discards the memory. Otherwise, we’d be driven crazy by the onslaught of the constant sensory bombardment. So perhaps that brain function amps up as we age. It’s not that I can’t remember new things; I just don’t feel any need to most of the time.

        Posted by Karl Drobnic | October 11, 2013, 5:35 pm
  5. @Karl, it’s also possible that as we age, we tend to have fewer truly unique experiences and therefore can “lump” similar experiences together and discard much of the latest experience as “been there, done that.” @christopherharpertill, well said. Intriguing questions. Thanks for the multiple links.

    Posted by Lily | October 11, 2013, 7:01 pm
    • Thanks, Lily! Yes, think you may be right. Interesting to think about how social and technical means and methods of remembering are perhaps increasingly out of step with these more human approaches to remembering…and forgetting.

      Posted by christopherharpertill | October 12, 2013, 4:38 pm
    • You might be right, Lily. That could well be a chunk of why I don’t remember new things much anymore. Concentration is one important element in retaining memories, and it is hard to concentrate on many of the things that fall into “been there, done that”. I let my attention wander on to the next thing unless something presses me to concentrate..

      Posted by Karl Drobnic | October 13, 2013, 12:01 am
  6. Hi Chris, Do we really want to remember everything? Take a school test. We study, we memorize, we work problems, trying to cover everything that might be asked. But, we are only asked some things, the things the teacher thinks is important. So, we have someone else deciding what is important to remember. With all the ways we can remember stuff, now, we don’t have to decide what to remember, and what to forget. But, is that a good thing? Maybe, maybe not, because we don’t know what questions will be on the test. Thanks, Silent

    Posted by symplysilent | October 13, 2013, 2:00 am
    • Hi, thanks for reading! Yes, I think you’re right and that’s why I like Nietzsche’s ideas of active forgetfulness and active remembering. Perhaps we should try to choose what to remember and forget. Digital archives default to storing everything. It can be useful to store memories or ideas in external devices but perhaps not if they are wearing us down.

      Posted by christopherharpertill | October 13, 2013, 4:21 am
    • The article I read that I referred to earlier was a medical study on what the active ingredient in marijuana actually does in the brain. It mimics a naturally produced brain chemical that causes us to forget inconsequential perceptions, like the faces of the other bicycle riders we pass going to the gym in the morning. Forgetting, according to the study, is a natural brain defense set up to protect us from “big data” overload. Short term memory, which is where a lot of forgetting occurs, can be likened to a grocery cart. We fill it up, and then if we add one more thing, something falls out. We are in a constant state of adding new short term memories, like which gym locker did I use today, and jettisoning inconsequential old ones, like which gym locker did I use yesterday. According to the study, the active stuff in marijuana does a very good job of mimicking the natural occurring brain chemical responsible for forgetting. I think the study was done at a university in North Carolina, but actually, I’ve kind of forgotten that.

      Posted by Karl Drobnic | October 14, 2013, 3:52 pm
      • That is fascinating! I think it is a conscious version of these kinds of natural processes to which Nietzsche was referring (although he would not have known about this kind of science) and some of this archiving perhaps gets in the way of the natural aspects. We are often encouraged to think of this kind of forgetting as a deficiency in contrast to the abilities of digital storage but perhaps the technical should be mimicing the natural more.

        Posted by christopherharpertill | October 15, 2013, 8:54 am
      • There is a paradigm that linguists use to describe studying a foreign language. When we memorize a list of vocabulary words, we “learn” the language. But the goal is to “acquire” the language. The brain seems to distinguish between what is immediately useful (memorizing the vocabulary list for the upcoming exam) and what is long term (acquired language). Getting the new language into the long term memory (acquisition) is what makes learning a new language so hard for most folk. Distraction is useful in the acquisition. If you are focused on the successful use of “Vo ist das toillette?” and you actually succeed in getting someone to direct you to the toilet, the sentence is likely to slip into the long term memory. If you just try to memorize the sentence, the brain will likely shunt it to the short term memory, where it will be discarded if not revisited.

        Posted by Karl Drobnic | October 15, 2013, 5:03 pm
  7. I’ve written a novel entitled “Psycho-clip” which explores the insertion of a video and 24/7 recording of events on a person’s psyche. For what its worth it can be found on google under Laurie keim psychoclip. I was awarded a doctorate for it.
    Cheers Laurie Keim

    Posted by Laurie Keim | October 13, 2013, 2:39 am
  8. Well written and with an interesting point. You’re describing something like digital hoarding, and you’ve made me consider my role in creating mounds of data.
    Great read.

    Posted by Aaron_Richards | October 13, 2013, 4:01 pm
  9. Mixed feelings as I love my archives… even the folder entitled “humor” which mainly contains cat videos.

    Posted by cavegirlmba | October 14, 2013, 3:51 am
    • I know what you mean! We would be completely lost as human beings without archiving of some kinds (even just writing down our thoughts to send to others) but maybe there are some things we would be better off without (of course I am not referring to cat videos here :-).

      Posted by christopherharpertill | October 15, 2013, 8:50 am
  10. Reblogged this on infoafrique.

    Posted by daropale67 | October 14, 2013, 9:03 am
  11. If we keep it simple archiving is very useful. However we often complicate things. Also there is the fact of “good” memories and “bad” memories. But a chip in the brain is not the answer as it is only another way that someone else can control us in the future. In my opinion it is not nessesary to record an entire life. A person no matter how important always has down time and meaningless moments. It just is life but I lean toward the natural.

    Posted by uknownfriend | October 15, 2013, 8:21 pm
  12. Reblogged this on garalgal and commented:
    Reminds me of my thesis

    Posted by ysblcledera | October 26, 2013, 5:17 am
  13. The sheer quantity of data is something I still find disastrous to the consciousness we possess. 100 years and beyond it was possible for a person to know a great deal about everything. As if knowledge and the archived knowledge of man was actually finite. We even have the testament of poets and writes such as Byron and Thomas de Quincy, among others, that they had read the entire library of Cambridge, that is a spectacular achievement. Something that seems imponderable. Now it is a feat of endurance to even have a complete understanding of a single subject or field.
    We are the most educated generation to have rose out from history (not the wisest perhaps) but generally so. However, I feel we are very naive and lack trust in one another’s intellect. I have personally only recently begun to use social networking sites and have been blogging only a week or so, due to over-consideration of my lack of importance, being dwarfed by sheer incredulity, galvanized by a secular and archive dominated world of similar intellects, which urges one to reconsider their opinion. Perhaps democratic thinking (not political but the fairness arising from a democratic mentality) is not always such a blessing, for those who know little go toe to toe with those that know a great deal, worrying indeed.

    Posted by danielpaulmarshall | October 26, 2013, 7:49 am
    • Extremely interesting, thanks! Yes, I think related to the issue of archiving is the perceived equitability of all viewpoints. The availability of vast archives of information does not necessarily enable us to be critical in fact we are perhaps pushed towards billing up more data rather than “thinking”. When there was less stuff availability to read perhaps more people thought more deeply about it. Although perhaps fewer people would have read anything much at all.

      Posted by christopherharpertill | October 26, 2013, 4:26 pm
      • Ah… now that leads to something else that is interesting, the effect public reading has on a community. I agree, people were not as educated, thus they did not read as we are able to do now in a generation where reading is taken as a given. However, public readings were very popular, this is attested to by London’s reaction to Arthur Conan Doyle killing off Sherlock, he actually had to bring him back from the foggy grave, owing to the rippling uproar it caused throughout London. Now I doubt it was only the reading public who caused this uproar, it must have been something that deeply affected the common denizen of London. Perhaps they believed through some urban myth that he was keeping an eye on them. This is the vitality of the imagination, to absorb and mythologize.
        Ovid retold the myths of Greece from his Roman standpoint, and each poet of the ancient times would embellish the myths in their own style, states within Greece would have conflicting stories, for they were orally presented to masses of people, who would get creative and when they told would embellish,Lucius Flavius Arrianus’s account of Alexander’s campaigns conflicted with what Alexander was quite possibly actually like, it is, controversially a hagiography, for he mythologized, he let his imagination loose. This process is essentially Chinese whispers through a greater expanse of time.
        This is an entirely different means of keeping archived knowledge recycled through new generations; the Upanishads are perhaps the pinnacle in this method of literature as cultureal primogeniture, the inheritance for the future.

        Posted by danielpaulmarshall | October 27, 2013, 12:42 am
      • This is probably a central issue actually and highlights something that is perhaps significantly different about contemporary digital forms of archiving. As you quite rightly seem to be suggesting any language is a form of archive and transmission of knowledge but all previous types of archive deteriorate or at least change over time. So in the verbal tradition the content and form of any information changes (eg. your Chinese whispers point). Any physical media deteriorate or change to varying degrees (eg stone tablet vs paper, with further differences between scroll, book etc). Digital storage (at least as far as I know) does not change unless corrupted which (I assume) is not considered to be a normal part of the aging process as would the evolution of stories in an oral tradition or the fading of paper. What impact does this have on our relationship to memory and ideas/stories? Do we tend to have a more realist, empiricist relationship to them and more concern with authenticity? Are we less willing to accept eye witness accounts (for legal or other purposes) than we used to? Now demanding physical (ideally video) evidence?

        Posted by christopherharpertill | October 28, 2013, 9:30 am


  1. Pingback: Nietzsche’s ‘active forgetfulness’ in the face of the avalanche of digital data | THE STRATEGIC LEARNER - October 10, 2013

  2. Pingback: Nietzsche’s ‘active forgetfulness’ in the face of the avalanche of digital data | This Is Not a Sociology Blog | csid - October 14, 2013

  3. Pingback: Nietzsche’s ‘active forgetfulness’ in the face of the avalanche of digital data | A Piney Walk About - October 22, 2013

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Chris Till

Chris Till


I am a sociologist whose research interests lie in the intersection between health, gender and technologies in relation to social theory.


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