Losing Your Data
Did you hear about Microsoft’s latest disaster? On October 10, one of Microsoft’s subsidiaries, Danger, accidentally deleted all the data from every single T-Mobile Sidekick device. All those contacts, events, to-do lists—everything— were gone, and they had no backup. Within hours, the usual “#FAIL” comments were all over Twitter, and within days the usual articles pleading with users to backup their data started to appear. But Microsoft isn’t the only one guilty of losing data recently. Apple’s new Snow Leopard OS has a nasty bug that, in certain cases, deletes all your data if you login as a Guest (this should be fixed in 10.6.2). Now, if I were one of those Sidekick or Snow Leopard users, I would have been pretty frustrated. But whenever I see one of these disasters, I can’t help but think about how I secretly wish some things I’ve written and done online could be erased.
Losing Your Dignity
Thankfully, most of my worst meltdowns took place on long-gone message boards where I didn’t use my real name. But today, even though most of us are using our real names as we interact online, it hasn’t stopped online showdowns. I’m sure I’m not alone in having witnessed a few painful-to-watch-but-kindof- hilarious Twitter meltdowns in which two people (Christians, no less) who’ve never met get into a 140-character tiff and then publicly stop following each other.
Of course, it’s all quite ridiculous, but the scary thing is not just that it happens, but that those conversations are out there permanently. Forever. You can try to delete them, but they never go away completely. Google and Archive. org are always watching.
So in an age in which our pasts—both good and bad—are constantly accessible, what does it mean to “forgive as the Lord forgave [us],” (Col 3:13) or “forgive and forget”? Remember that old adage, “Forgive and forget”? What do we do now that it’s impossible to forget?
Freeing Our Data
In Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s new book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, the author addresses some of these very questions. He argues that before the digital age no one could remember every event and every conversation they had. This meant that over time communities could exercise “social forgetting” that erased the little unpleasantries of everyday life.
Today, things are bit different. College students are continually reminded that anything they put on Facebook might become a part of their first job interview. Personally, I’ve gone back and deleted a few regrettable tweets, hoping that no one will find them buried in a cache somewhere. Since I live half my life in the Christian world and half in the secular web world, I’m always a little afraid that something I said online will come back to haunt me.
Mayer-Schönberger suggests that the solution to these problems is to “stop creating tools that automatically remember everything. Instead, we need to design them to forget” (Wired, 17.08). He cites tools such as Flickr’s Guest Pass and Drop.io’s Private Sharing, which are designed to only keep a file active for a limited period of time.
Choosing to Remember
Mayer-Schönberger’s solution sounds pretty good (and almost downright biblical). The Old Testament often talks of God graciously “forgetting” the wrong we’ve done. In Jeremiah 31:34, God makes the foundational promise of our Christian faith, “I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”
But it doesn’t take a Bible scholar to know that God doesn’t really “forget” in the same way that Microsoft and Apple do. The data on those once-cool Sidekicks no longer exists, but our all-knowing God never really forgets. Instead, he chooses to stop holding those sins against us and see us through the blood of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Theologian Miroslav Volf, author of The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, says that when we try to deal with the past, we often make one of two mistakes. Sometimes we downplay what happened, saying, “Aw, it wasn’t that big of a deal. I only lost, like, six followers over it.” This way, we don’t have to forgive the event as it actually happened. Other times, when we hold resentment against someone, we inflate an event in order to make the offender look worse. “She posted that over the entire Internet.” But Volf, who underwent a months-long interrogation during the Yugoslavian conflict, suggests that a major part of forgiveness is not forgetting, but remembering rightly so we can forgive what really happened.
For Christians, this means that the Internet’s ability to help us remember rightly is a chance to practice a theologically-informed, true kind of forgiveness. Rather than downplay an incident or cut people off every time they annoy us, we have the chance to look at the past with Google-like accuracy and choose to stop holding those wrongs against those who harmed us. Instead of constantly blocking, de-following, and un-friending, we can choose to see people and their wrong through the blood of Christ.
You know, that might just make a decent witness.
John Dyer is a web developer in Dallas, Texas, and he writes about issues related to faith and technology at www.donteatthefruit.com.