On a recent visit to Cleveland we met with Paul Voorhies-Meerschaum, the chairman and chief executive officer of Creative Forgetting Technologies. Voorhies-Meerschaum greeted us in an old warehouse in the flats. In the heyday of steelmaking, it had belonged to Republic Steel.

A pudgy, rumpled man in his middle forties, Voorhies-Meerschaum did an eighteen year stint with TRW before leaving to start his own company. He had a reputation as a software and development whiz there. The tag was that he knew what a program wanted to do and how it wanted to do it long before the program had any inkling of its own style and possibilities.

“We got this building cheap,” Voorhies-Meerscahum told us. “We got it dirt cheap. We got it because nobody wanted it. This might be the exact center of the rust belt right here. We’ve fixed it up a little bit, but not too much. We like its flavor. Although it doesn’t know it, it has its own kind of wisdom and experience. We’ve got two hundred and fifty people working here and the place is so huge, it’s no trouble fitting them in.

“We had a hell of a battle with the city about it, but that was actually fun in its own way. They try so hard to pretend that they don’t need jobs, employers and investments that you wonder if they haven’t convinced themselves. That’s a little scary. They woke up when we told them we’d pay cash for the building and we’d pay the full assessed value on the books. They never expected to get anything.

“We’re concerned with pollution. We think of ourselves as a clean-up company. We’re trying to learn how to clean up messes that most people don’t yet recognize exist. If you remember, a few years back the Cuyahoga was so filthy from all the industrial waste that it caught fire. That’s where we get our logo from. We’re concerned with information pollution.

“We think there is so much useless information around that it’s getting harder and harder to use information at all. It’s getting harder to think. You can’t find the good stuff. The information explosion is presented as providing extraordinary new vehicles for thinking. There is certainly truth in that. But it is also an obstacle to thinking. Every vehicle is an obstacle. Anyone who has been in a traffic jam knows that.

“Our logo shows a man with a burning river in his head. We think that this already is happening. There is so much wretched senseless information and so much misinformation that it begins to have an incendiary quality. Just because we can collect information, we do. Just because we can store information, we do store it. We take foolish actions because we don’t have the sense to say, ‘No’, to our own information. The information is using us, if not abusing us, more than we’re using it. It’s really more deforming than informing at many points.

“We hear stories over and over again of businesses making bad decisions because they believe their own numbers, even when they know these can’t be true. It happens in engineering. It happens in medicine. It happens all the time in government where implausible statistical surveys set the stage for reruns of programs that have already failed three times in three different disguises. Ideas are drowning in data at least as much as they are being born from them. Even the idea of ideas is getting lost.

“A scientist friend of mine told me that he couldn’t possibly keep up in his field because there was so much nonsense being written and published that he couldn’t even imagine a procedure for sorting through it to find what he needed. He said that the farthest he had gotten was the idea that, if Alexander the Great had been asked to search for needles in haystacks, he probably would have torched the haystacks.

“The tail is wagging the dog and the dog hasn’t even caught on enough to what is going on to get seriously exercised about it. We’re not in favor of letting sleeping dogs lie. If they refuse to tell themselves the truth, they’re going to get caught dangerously off guard. Everyone’s obsessed with accumulating information, with possessing it and not worried anywhere nearly enough about being possessed by it.

“It’s much like material greed. It’s a less literal form of acquisitiveness, but moved along by exactly the same kind of inner dynamics. It’s really not so different than the plight of King Midas. I don’t think Midas was a bad fellow, even if he did come to a bad end. The poor guy accumulated so much gold, he couldn’t eat or drink. He mistook the medium of exchange for the sum of the goods on which it depended for its existence.

“But,” said Voorhies-Meerschaum, “I’ve strayed a little bit past my point. Let me say it again. We’re indiscriminately accumulating so much low grade information that we’re in serious danger of being unable to think. It’s a major mental dietary problem that threatens us with intellectual and, above all, imaginative sclerosis. We have to learn how to forget so that we can find new patterns.

“Now forgetting involves letting go. It takes confidence to let go. It takes confidence to forget. This is a place where Freud gave all of information science, probably all of our culture a weird twist. He emphasized forgetting as a way of excluding something threatening from awareness.

“There’s another kind of forgetting which expresses an inner accord which is not really ‘mastery’ but something more profound than ‘mastery.’ We can let go of the pieces once we have the shape. Anyone who has paid attention to learning physical skills knows this. The same is true for mental skills. What we’ve forgotten is what guides us.

“We don’t have to keep it buzzing around in consciousness like a cloud of so many annoying gnats or mosquitoes. Awareness is only a halfway station. It’s not the end of the trip. We think in order to get beyond what we think about. We may think in order to get beyond thinking altogether. I don’t pretend to know.

“So what we’ve done in the software we’ve developed is to focus on letting go and forgetting as creative processes. We want to build in to programs what we call high order sieve functions. These are really ways of guiding forgetting. The genius of our own mental functioning is what we are able to forget, what we can let go of, the way in which we can make up at a moment’s notice very complex pictures out of rather simple elements.

“We make so much out of so little. Being unable to forget is a tremendous handicap. Also, there are as many different kinds of forgetting as there are kinds of memory. You just can’t have high quality memory without high-quality forgetting.

“I can get all revved up about these things and talk for hours. My wife says I’m a solipsist and that solipsism is the ultimate failure of imagination. She says I can’t imagine how little other people are interested in what I’m interested in.

“Once she told me, quite bitterly, that she thought the only other person I’d ever known was myself. I took that as a compliment, because I don’t see how you can change unless you become an other for yourself. I think any change depends on self-forgetfulness. Now, can you forget yourself and still be a solipsist?

“Ah,” said Voorhies-Meerschaum with obvious relish, “now I’ve managed to locate myself by forgetting where I was. Here I am. I wanted to give you a practical example of how urgently forgetting is needed. This is a low level example, but it is the kind of thing that grips you. Fifteen years ago, a printer in South Euclid made an error on his income tax return. He changed one digit of his Social Security number. I think he substituted a 7 for a 3. He did it only once.

“Unfortunately for him, and for many years unbeknownst to him, there was a man in California with this Social Security number who never paid his taxes. As a result, the man here in South Euclid, call him Louis X, was harried unmercifully by the IRS. They went so far as to garnishee his wages four times over a ten year period. Each time it cost Louis X a bundle.

After the fourth time, the IRS explained to him that they regretted that they could not guarantee that it would not happen again. The computers talk to each other. Lists of tax evaders pass electronically from here to there according to programs whose precise workings no one any longer understands. No one knows the many addresses of this false bit of information in the vast electronic world of the tax collectors’ musing. It’s like a chronic infection which may flare up again at any time.

“We are all familiar with the adage that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. In this case, we have a counter-example, namely, that those who have no idea how to forget history are doomed to repeat it. It’s a very subtle question as to when perseverance, a virtue, passes over into perseveration, a vice. It’s a matter of degree, of balance, of emphasis. We’re seeking a big contract with the IRS to help them write programs that forget creatively instead of remembering destructively. I keep reminding them that amnesty and amnesia are related and that both have their wonderful aspects. Here, in this old warehouse, we’re trying to redress a balance. When it comes to memory, it is often the case that less is more.

“We think that there is a market of billions of dollars for our products. We’re even talking with the Pentagon about what we have to offer. I’m not sure where this will go. They have one of the biggest problems with not being able to forget appropriately. It extends into so many different areas, from ruminating endlessly about how to prepare for the last war to being unable to let any project go because they are afraid that, if they let it go, they will lose one precious bit of technical, tactical or strategic advantage. Our way of thinking is so strange to the folks there that watching them struggle with it is quite fascinating.

“This,” Voorhies-Meerschaum told us, “is really the crux of it. Forgetting is a way. It is a way of going about things. It is a method. How we can use what we have is defined by what we choose not to have. To catch on, you must let go. We think that, if you want to see the light, it’s important to travel light. Forgetting is the way we have of unloading. We need to respect it more and cultivate it more.

“Of course, this becomes paradoxical. What I’m saying is that we’ve forgotten about forgetting, not in the way we forget when we’ve reached an inner accord or some harmonious inner arrangement, but in the way we do when we’re frightened of some aspect of ourselves that is out of place or out of proportion. I think we’re onto something here in the heart of the rust belt. Or is it that we’ve gotten off something? Or is it that we’re getting off on something?”

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