To forget or not to forget, that is the question

In an era of information and visual surfeit, Dutch artist Erik Kessels has gone on the offensive, mounting an exhibit consisting of a million photos among which visitors wade.

The Photography In Abundance installation is part of the What’s Next display celebrating Foam’s 10th anniversary. Kessels commented, “The idea was to present a sea of images that you can drown in.” Visitors are invited to walk over a mountain of photographs and look at whatever strikes their fancy.

Foam, based in Amsterdam, is “All about photography”. For photographers, picture editors, designers and anyone who has a passion for photography, it devises exhibitions, publications, discussions and specific projects related to contemporary themes in the field. Special attention is given to nurturing upcoming artists. Foam encourages people to experience and enjoy photography, whether at its museum, on its website, or via its internationally distributed magazine.

Kessels downloaded and printed photos found on Flickr, Facebook and Google that were free for people to use. “We consume images so fast nowadays,” he said, “that I was wondering what it would look like if you physically printed off all the images that became available in a 24-hour period.” One aim of the installation is to demonstrate how public ostensibly private images have become and just how much digital information is “out there”.

“Information overload” is a term popularized by Alvin Toffler in his bestselling 1970 book Future Shock. It refers to the difficulties a person can have understanding an issue and reaching decisions when faced with too much information. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, in his book delete The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (2009), takes the argument further. He says that, despite the central importance of forgetting to the human psyche, the digital age has brought about a monumental shift from the default position of forgetting to one of remembering. He cites the creation of a global digital memory that vastly exceeds the capacity of our collective human minds.

Mayer-Schönberger’s counterproposal is to promote the concept of forgetting in the digital age by introducing compulsory expiration dates for information. The aim would be to shift the default back from retaining information forever to deleting it after a certain period of time. The book pursues all the ins and outs of this theory and its legal, social and cultural ramifications. Finally, he writes:

“Expiration dates are not about imposed forgetting. They are about awareness and human action, and about asking humans to reflect – if only for a few moments – on how long the information they want to store may remain valuable and useful… What is important is not that we are forced to choose, but that in doing so we have to reflect on the lifespan of information. As it will become part of our daily routines, we may realize what humans have at least implicitly grasped for millennia: that good information is preferable to copious information.”

English author Lewis Carroll, as ever, was ahead of his time. In Through the Looking-Glass (and What Alice Found There) the following exchange (almost) takes place:

“The horror of that moment,” the King went on, “I shall never, never forget!”
“You will, though,” the Queen said, “if you don’t make a digital memorandum of it – and add an expiration date.”

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