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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?

Wilfrid M. McClay's “On the Need for Erasure”, The Hedgehog Review, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring, 2015)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?

In this brief essay, Bill McClay, current occupant of the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, takes on just one of the many issues of the permanence and accessibility of information published on the internet today. He raises three concerns.

First, behind the wonderful benefit of the speed and ease of the internet, “there is also a relentless and remorseless capture of experience, which feeds an elephant that never forgets.” McClay refers to the recent Google case in Europe where individuals who wanted information expunged from the internet were fought by Google in the top court of the European Union and were upheld against the internet giant. We don’t need more than the current case of Erin Andrews, the ESPN reporter who was secretly filmed naked in her hotel room, the video of which apparently went viral on the internet, to remind us that the threat of such permanence can be very costly indeed, if used inappropriately. Whether legal efforts at expunging information once it gets onto the “world-wide web” can ever succeed is still very much in question.

Second, McClay points out the problem this permanence creates for younger people. He quotes George W. Bush’s standard answer to reporters in the 2000 election, when he was asked about rumors that he had drunk too much, smoked marijuana, etc. while in school: “When I was young and foolish, I was… young and foolish.” We need to understand that people are always in a state of maturing (some more quickly than others!) and that the things one says at the age of twenty will not be the things one would say at the age of fifty.

Thirdly, McClay makes clear that he is not against memory. No praise of the “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” for him. In fact he sees memory as providing the wonderful function of “tak[ing] an active role in thinning out the mental trees so that the forests can be discerned”. But, if we are constantly confronted with a glut of random information, this process is more difficult, the memory has more trouble forming the stories we need to “link facts in ways that are both meaningful and true”.

There is much more to this immensely readable, thoughtful essay that makes it a superb addition to any discussion of the internet and social media and their impact on our lives. We will be discussing this as one of our main topics at the Annual Meeting of the CCSC in Asheville this summer, guided by Felicia Wu Song who has written a great deal in this area. As a primer for that time together, I highly recommend reading and discussing this brief note (less than two full pages).

Wilfrid McClay’s essay can be found here:

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