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I know how to nurse a grudge. I could still tell you the names of the classmate who tortured me in fifth grade, the professor who yelled at me during a grad school seminar, and the client who skipped on a bill a decade ago. I could tell you exactly who said what, and why, and where, and most importantly, I could provide you with the list of imagined (if unexecuted) revenge plots I have conjured for each one of these grievances.

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Depending on your philosophical outlook, this might seem like a talent, a skill or an affliction. All I know is that neither therapy nor meditation nor a few dozen self-improvement books have managed to erase this particular habit.

Nonetheless, I have found one personal rule that keeps my grudge-holding in check: Once I have forgotten the details of the original offence, I strictly forbid myself from maintaining my grudge. I may not be much good at forgive and forget, but once I forget, I require myself to forgive.

Thanks to the internet, however, I fear that forgetfulness is no longer a spiritual hall pass. How forgiving can any of us be, now that the internet logs all our online misdeeds forever?

I’m not just talking about flame wars or insensitive Facebook comments; I’m talking about the ever-growing number of conflicts and failings that are forever memorialized online. You know what I mean: The string of apologetic “I’ll be there in 5 minutes!” texts that testify to your BFF’s inability to meet up on time. The YouTube video that captures a particularly dramatic child or adult tantrum. The book that failed to acknowledge your contributions before it disappears from print…only to reappear in Google’s book archives. How can we let bygones be bygones when we can no longer count on them actually going by?

It’s tempting to add Google to my list of grudges and blame it for our diminishing capacity for forgiveness. But dig a little deeper into the relationship between technology, memory, and forgiveness, and it’s not so clear that the days of forgiveness are actually behind us.

The Internet Sometimes Forgets

For one thing, it turns out that the internet’s ability to remember everything is somewhat overstated. As Wendy Hui Kyong Chun points out in “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory,” “Digital media is not always there. We suffer daily frustrations with digital sources that just disappear. Digital media is degenerative, forgetful, eraseable.”

Indeed, digital media is so prone to disappearance that we have the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (IWM), a website specifically designed to archive the ever-disappearing Internet. What Chun refers to as the “Internet’s Wayback Machine (IWM)”

fixes the internet by offering us a “machine” that lets us control our movement between past and future by regenerating the internet on a grand scale. The IWM is appropriate in more ways than one; because webpages link to, rather than embed, images, which can be located anywhere, and because link locations always change, the IWM preserves only a skeleton of a page, filled with broken—rendered—links and images.

To the imperfections of media storage and the gaps in the Wayback Machine, let me add another source of online forgetfulness: the emergence of a legal “right to be forgotten.” Particularly in the European Union, emergent case law and policy has moved us towards a world in which technology’s theoretical capacity to remember everything is mitigated by an explicit commitment to the power of forgetting.

As Meg Leta Ambrose and Jef Ausloos note in “The Right to Be Forgotten Across the Pond,” this right has emerged in direct response to legal cases that reflect the very tangible ways eternal online memory affects our lives:

In an age when “You are what Google says you are,” expecting parents search prospective names to help their children retrieve top search results. Only a few rare parents hope their children can be “lost in a virtual crowd,” even in light of the pressure that comes with the accepted notion that “Life, it seems, begins not at birth but with online conception… and a child’s name is the link to that permanent record.” In short, the search results for an individual’s name have significant ramifications. One’s digital history may impact the opportunities offered, the reputation one maintains, and the self one embodies.

The “Google Effect” Makes us More Forgetful

And of course, one’s digital history may also impact whether people are prepared to forgive you for your misdeeds—particularly if those people include chronic grudge-nursers like me. But Google brings us some good news here, too, because it turns out that a world with Google is a world in which people just aren’t as good at remembering.

In “How Google Is Changing Your Brain,” Daniel M. Wegner and Adrian F. Ward dub this the “Google Effect”, writing that

It may be that the Internet is taking the place not just of other people as external sources of memory but also of our own cognitive faculties. The Internet may not only eliminate the need for a partner with whom to share information—it may also undermine the impulse to ensure that some important, just learned facts get inscribed into our biological memory banks.

While Google Effect hasn’t erased my memories of pre-internet offences, it may be that our minds will be less likely to record and nurse grievances now that we are getting in the habit of outsourcing memory to the cloud. As Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu, and Daniel M. Wegner put it in “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips,” “[w]e are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.” If at some level we trust Google to remind us why we’re angry at someone, we can allow ourselves to release that reason from our own minds.

The Difference Between Forgive and Forget

Lest you think that the Google Effect is thus a passport to forgiveness, however, it’s worth reflecting on the fundamental relationship between forgetting and forgiveness. As Oliver Hallich maps out in “Can the Paradox of Forgiveness Be Dissolved?

Forgiving is one of the many ways we have of responding to acts of wrongdoing. It is often defined as “the forswearing of negative emotions, on moral grounds, that have been occasioned when one has been wronged by another person”, where the term “negative emotions” refers to a wide range of emotions such as annoyance, disappointment, resentment, anger, loathing, contempt, indignation and hatred….[I]nsofar as forgiving involves “the forswearing of negative emotions”, it, in contrast to forgetting, is something we do, not something that merely happens to us. It requires that the forgiver decides to forswear resentment, and it is done for a reason.

Sadly, there is no app for that. No service can take on the hard work of forgiving, even if relying on Google can teach us to forget. Forgiveness is hard work, and it’s human work: the work of deliberately giving up a grudge and choosing to release the negative emotions that go with it.

The Art of the Online Apology

But perhaps there is a way that technology can help with this most human of tasks. As Karen A. Cerulo and Janet M. Ruane document in the fascinating “Apologies of the Rich and Famous: Cultural, Cognitive, and Social Explanations of Why We Care and Why We Forgive,” apologies have an enormous impact on the capacity for forgiveness, at least when it comes to celebrity transgressions: “The apology becomes a way of reconciling and repairing important social relations, of convincing an audience to forgive and forget.”

But not all apologies are equally effective: according to Cerulo and Ruane, the apologies that are mostly likely to yield forgiveness are “mortification” apologies in which “offenders unequivocally admit shame and guilt and explicitly ask the public for forgiveness.”

In the pre-internet world, it was only celebrities and politicians who had to deliver this kind of public apology; who had to practice the art of earning forgiveness for a public misdeed. But in a time when any of us can have a thoughtless remark permanently inscribed in Google, however unpredictably or imperfectly, any and all of us need to learn how to say we’re sorry.

We can do it in just the way that Cerulo and Ruane prescribe. In their semantic analysis of public apologies and the accompanying polling data indicating levels of public forgiveness, it turns out that apologies are most likely to lead to forgiveness when they focus on the victim rather than the offender, and when they’re sequenced in a way that keeps the victim’s experience front and centre. As an example of an ideal apology they cite (and annotate) Oprah Winfrey’s 2009 apology to the actress Robin Givens for allowing Mike Tyson, Given’s ex-husband, to joke about his history of abuse:

I would say to you and to every woman who’s ever been hit . . . [victims]…I feel that I did not handle that as well as I should have. And I feel that I could have gone further and should have said more to clarify that what he was doing and what he was saying was wrong. So I apologize to you and to every woman who has ever been in that situation [remorse].

In a world in which we all leave a permanent record, we all need to learn the art of delivering a public apology that combines an expression of remorse or mortification with a narrative that keeps the victim at the centre of our apology. We can and should use that formula when we make a mistake online, like sending a hostile email or posting something insensitive on Facebook or Twitter. But we can and should also keep it in reserve for the inevitable and numerous situations in which we hurt or offend people offline in ways that Google may preclude forgetting.

The Future of Forgiveness

The possibility that the internet can actually support the interrelated processes of apologizing, forgiving, and even forgetting is a useful rejoinder to the perpetual fretting over the permanence of our digital footprints. True, we can no longer count on our past misdeeds disappearing from view, either online or offline. But it’s that very unpredictability that creates both the necessity and the possibility for true forgiveness, by challenging us to cultivate not only the skill of apologizing but the skill of letting go.

And if you’re not quite ready to embrace the internet’s potential for fostering this most human of skills, it’s okay. I forgive you.


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