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Mercer Digital Media Arts Professor Presents Paper at MIT


WEST WINDSOR – While human memories fade over time, not so with the digital images we store on our computers, smart phones, even on social media. Recollections of that bad haircut or the better-forgotten significant other is forever preserved in sharp, digital color for posterity, ready to unearth moments in one’s history perhaps best left buried.

Time to cue up The Forgetting Machine.

The Forgetting Machine is a smart phone application currently under development by Mercer County Community College Professor Sarah Sweeney, coordinator of the Digital Media Arts program. She presented a paper on the development of the app at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the MIT8 Media in Transition Conference in May.

Part memory science, part art, and part social commentary on the proliferation of media applications that artificially enhance human memory, The Forgetting Machine is actually designed to digitally destroy photographs, Sweeney said. Any photograph taken with the app will

Sarah Sweeney

MCCC Professor Sarah Sweeney, coordinator of Mercer's Digital Media Arts program, explains the philosophy behind the development of a smart phone app called "The Forgetting Machine." She presented a paper on her work during new media conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in May.


change slightly each time it is refreshed or viewed. Can’t remember if Aunt Millie’s dress at Thanksgiving had a floral or polka dot pattern? The Forgetting Machine will degrade the photos as well, mirroring the fuzzy recollection of human memory.

“Autobiographical memory has become externalized and public through the emergence of recording devices and social media,” Sweeney said. “The explosion of social media in the 21st century has given these objects wider circulation, allowing them to travel beyond their immediate geographically-bound network.

“By synchronizing public and private memories through their simultaneous decay, it creates the possibility for forgetting in both the public and private spheres.”

Sweeney was commissioned to develop the project by Rhizome, an organization dedicated to emerging artistic practices that engage technology. Her proposal was one of only 10 selected nationwide last year.

Sweeney envisions The Forgetting Machine as an app that will appeal most to artists who work with digital media, and she expects to have it finished this summer and will submit it to the iPhone App Store for distribution. But meanwhile, it remains food for thought regarding the wisdom of extended prosthetic memories.

“Recent work in psychology and memory science suggests that forgetting can be productive as a treatment for traumatic memory disorders,” Sweeney said. “This paper looks at the tension between the act of forgetting and a culture saturated with persistent public memory objects.

“Our culture is obsessed with saving and preserving. The idea of forgetting is radical.”



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