Let’s talk about forgiveness and why religions seem to be so big on it.
Venkatesh Rao explains, in great detail and using an esoteric technical example, why forgiveness has to be built in to our culture going forwards. Basically, technology will make it impossible to forget, which means we will have to be able to forgive.
Venkat calls this “irreversibly settling collective memories that cannot be erased” and compares a car’s odometer to its speedometer. A speedometer can go up or down, but an odometer only goes up. Anytime the car moves it adds to the odometer’s historical record. So you might not know whether or not the car has been driven too fast, but you absolutely know the car has been driven too far; everyone can see the same public record.
A permanent, public memory means there is no way to “undo” a mistake. You can’t wipe the slate clean. Whatever happened, happened. Forgetting that it happened is not an option. If you can’t forget about something that means it is always available to affect decisions in the present. Just think of every amnesia story line you’ve ever seen. Someone might totally change their behavior when they remember their past.
Amnesia applies to entire societies the same way it applies to individuals. We deliberately keep memories of the past alive, or bury them, or alter them, to affect behavior in the present. But what if, in the future, we don’t have the option to erase or alter the record?
A thought experiment discussed by Ed Gibney is like amnesia for pain. What if you felt the pain, but your brain was blocked from actually recording the memory? That seems like an unqualified good, right? It’s like the pain never happened. But Gibney points out if you can forget anything, “It will take great wisdom to know for certain what if any scenario should be permanently left unremembered.”
Forgetting is finite game (short-term) way of dealing with things. Relief is immediate. Like all immediate rewards it robs us of the possibility of achievements that require long term work. It would be impossible to develop wisdom if you had the memory of a goldfish. You can’t get better if you keep forgetting. But it is nice to pretend some things never happened so you don’t have to deal with them.
We figure there is a very good chance people just won’t have that option in the future. You can already see the conversation about how people growing up on social media have permanent records of their activity and in most cases they really wish they didn’t. Even adults who have only been active on social media for part of their life can have something questionable mined up from 10 years ago used to derail them today.
A non-tech example is that a lot of people have trouble with anxiety today from events in their past. Like not being able to go to sleep because a memory of an embarrassing event from years ago is too raw.
This dynamic is why forgiveness is such a common idea in religion. Forgiveness isn’t for other people, forgiveness is for you. If you can’t forget you have to be able to forgive.
Forgiveness is knowing that something happened yesterday and not being controlled by it today; it’s the opposite of forgetting. If you can forgive, you can learn, because you don’t have to forget. Wisdom cannot be cultivated until you can hold on to painful memories and still freely choose your own actions.
Like every other religious idea we’ve investigated, forgiveness works whether or not it’s tied to the supernatural. Arguably, a non-supernatural philosophy which includes forgiveness is indispensable to people navigating a world in which technology never forgets.
Get out there and start forgiving. Start by forgiving yourself for anything you regret. Instead, learn from that experience to become better. Then, turn to your family and community, forgive them, and help them become better. Your world will be a much better place to live.