In The Adventures of Tintin, Cuthbert Calculus is the archetypical professor. A genius, certainly, but difficult to get along with, and absent-minded to boost. Capable of designing a rocket to the moon, but incapable of remembering where he left the blueprints. If anyone describes him as ditzy, he flies off the handle.
Georges Rémi, better known as Hergé, was the one to pioneer the drawing style called ligne claire (“clear line.”) Science has since proven that his portrayal of the human psyche was spot on, too: turns out that geniuses do tend to be forgetful. Scientists Blake Richards and Paul Frankland of the University of Toronto have shown this in a study into the workings of our memory, focusing not on remembering, but the very opposite. “We propose that it is the interaction between persistence and transience that allows for intelligent decision-making in dynamic, noisy environments,” their abstract states. In other words: when the amount of information is overwhelming, our smart brains are actively forgetting things. The purpose of the memory is not the storage of memories, but rather the optimization of decision-making.
If we require forgetfulness in order to make the right decisions, our (future) relationship with technology seems problematic. Renate Samson, chief executive of Big Brother Watch, wrote a piece in Le Monde titled “We have all become digital citizens.” The internet does not have a tendency to forget things, unless you submit specific “forget-me-requests” to search engines. Blockchain technology takes this one step further: this technology is like a digital general ledger, saving transactions for all of eternity. It does so in such an efficient and trustworthy way that data storage can be decentralized, without a third party like a bank or a notary having to vouch for its authenticity.
This does not only make decision-making troublesome for us as human beings, but also threatens our creativity. Psychologists Benjamin Storm and Trisha Patel of the University of California have devised experiments that show that the process of forgetting also plays a crucial part in creative thinking. Those who were more forgetful also proved to be the more diverse thinkers. Nothing new there: the myth of the phoenix rising from its ashes, and Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction prove exactly this point.
We are going to have to come up with ways to handle machines that are incapable of forgetting. Our fear that we will cognitively lag behind is unjustified, however. It is our forgetfulness that causes us to make better decisions.
A certain degree of ditziness is beneficial, then. Let’s be flattered when someone accuses us of being a ditz, rather than get angry.
This article originally appeared on Studio Zeitgeist.