by: danah boyd
At a dinner party long ago, a debate emerged about the importance of forgetting versus the techno-utopian desire to remember *everything*. As the animation level of the debate approached unmanageable, a woman at the table confronted the most vocal of the anti-forgetting people, asking him if he was the first child. He looked at her oddly and said no, the second. She smirked and told him that he should be thankful for the power of forgetting because no woman in her right mind would ever go through childbirth a second time if she could clearly recall the pain involved. Needless to say, her point resulted in many muted giggles.
Lately, i've been reading too much about the history of courtship in the United States. "From Front Porch to Back Seat" offers great insight into just how brand new the 1950s image of "dating" is. Go back 100 years and no proper girl would ever be caught dead out in public with a suitor. Girls chose which boys could call on them (boys had no choice) and these calls were taken at the girl's home, initially with a chaperone present. Working class girls had no parlors and thus couldn't take calls; they met boys in public spaces. Rich girls, irritated by the limits of traditional courtship, began rebelling by taking to the streets with their beaus. Slowly, from there, public dating became the common practice for courtship. Ironically, what is now perceived as solidly middle class in terms of practice originated from working class and was solidified by the rebellious upper class.
Public dating began a radical re-gendering of courtship. The move out of the home (viewed as a woman's sphere) into the public (viewed as a man's sphere) shifted everything. This was further magnified by the fact that the move to public required money and money was boy's money. While calling-driven courtship was controlled by women, men began calling the shots when it moved out of the home. They chose who they wished to date, they controlled where the date was to take place, etc. The norms also shifted as girls became popular by dating as many good-looking men as possible (and vice versa). Dating was not about love or companionship, but solely about status. The iconic image seems to forget that.
Part of how this image of dating was solidified in mainstream culture as normative has to do with mainstream media's perpetuation of the cultural norms. Magazines, TV, and movies all perpetuated this image of dating, providing structure to the ritual. Today, as we are caught in our own confusions about courtship, we long for the idyllic image of dating that never really existed, the image that the media "forgot" to convey. We no longer have social scripts for how to go about mating. I love asking teens and college students about dating... The term seems so antiquated, so wrong. Sure, teens have boyfriends and girlfriends, but ask them how they met or how they knew they were dating and all lines get blurry real fast. Hell, ask most 20-somethings about how they went from a hookup to being partners - they have no idea either.
While we continue to perpetuate an image of dating as an institution, the realities of courtship are quite fuzzy. A few too many drinks and Mr. Playboy takes home the hottie in the corner; the hottie thinks a relationship's brewing while Mr. Playboy blames beer goggles. Close friends begin adding benefits to their friendship - is a Relationship emerging or is it solely Friends with Benefits? Ideally, we'd all be good at communicating the state of our relationships with others, but the truth is that we suck at reflexivity.
Then again, do we really want precise communicative efficacy? Sometimes, the fuzzy line is more desirable. What if you don't know what you want? Land-o-gray is a hell of a lot more simpler than full commitment or complete anti-commitment. Besides, plausible deniability is a girl's best friend. But there's a difference between the blurred space and the incomplete crystalized image from the silver screen. The further we move from the space in which that was created, the more we "remember" something that never existed.
Now, imagine that you had to face every uncomfortable dating situation ever for the rest of your life, every awkward disconnect, every terrible blind date, every painfully unpleasant interaction. Would you ever date again? All around me, my friends are becoming dating-phobic because they're terrified of messing up one more time. I watch as they swing to extremes, overcompensating for the last relationship disaster. And they don't even remember the details of what went wrong! (Which reminds me... you out there... you really hated him when you broke up the first time, the second time AND the third time... don't get back together just because he's being nice now!)
While i'm all down for remembering everything i ever read, just imagine the havoc wreaked on courtship by remembering today. First off, you "remember" interactions that never took place because you read the details of her blog before you even met. Next, all of those blog entries you wrote reminds you of your own emotional naivetÃ© because you were in lurve. And now you have the snarky emails and IMs and texts that show that you're a complete dickwad and are the root cause of all relationship woes. You have the video of your breakup that you watch over and over again to see what you could've done better so that you don't feel like such shit. Oh, and you have shelves of DVDs that prove that your relationship looks nothing like what "normal" relationships should look like (proof through Molly Ringwald). Somehow, just as you're starting to feel better, you think that it couldn't _really_ hurt to look at her MySpace. Only you found that she erased your very existence in an effort to delete the relationship out of memory. And you wonder why you've stolen every emo MP3 out there.
I don't think it's just babymaking that we want to forget. There are good reasons for the tried-and-true attitude that you can't immediately just be friends post-breakup. The reason you take time away is to forget. The reason you want to forget is because it's how you make sure your ego doesn't go suicidal on you. The natural decay of negative memories is quite useful. The re-organizing of your past allows you to be confident in who you are today. (We all remember middle school sucking, but do you really remember the details of it or just an abstraction? Statistics suggest that the #1 feeling you felt was boredom, but i suspect that's not the first emotion that comes to mind when you think of le sucktitude of middle school.)
Media has made it difficult for cultural memories to fade. We don't remember the days of house calls for courtship because society moved away from that rather quickly (and few read beyond the Crib Notes of 11th grade English texts). But thanks to TV and movies, we "remember" past practices and norms. Does this mean that culture will have a much harder time evolving with the times? Or perhaps it means that there will be an ever-increasing disconnect between the generations because even though your mom didn't fall in love like Ingrid Bergman, she's still gonna imagine that this is how it's supposed to be. How does the non-forgetfulness of archival media influence our culture's ability to shift over time?
We are building technology with the implicit desire to remember everything. Every interaction, every feeling, every idea. Why? Perhaps this isn't such a good thing. I for one would like to see my digital memories fade into hearts and flowers. Of course, being the ever-benevolent giver, technology has decided to invent a different solution: "the memory pill" (guaranteed to obliterate negative memories so that you can overcome the memory of murdering your wife... err... i mean, PTSD...). Better living through chemistry and technology, right? Right??? Bueller?