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The concept of erasure appears in many different aspects of our culture. Mistakes are part of human nature, and the ability to erase, undo, delete or unsend something allows us to accept that we make mistakes. From pictograms on clay tablets to pencils with erasers, erasure has always been a key factor in our choice of medium.

Memory Erasure

Human nature’s yearning to reverse what has been done can be seen in the wide use of terms such as “take it back”, “forget it”, “[this] never happened”, “[I was] never here” etc. Memory erasure is a popular cultural trope. This popularity reflects our cultural yearning for such a technology. It is the ultimate act of erasure. Often times a character will willingly have his/her memory erased. Some examples of such willfull erasure can be seen in the films Total Recall, Men in Black II and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the books The Hitchiker’s Guide to The Galaxy and Glasshouse, as well as the television shows Heroes and The Simpsons.

Erasure in Contemporary Art

The concept of erasure is also an important theme in the works of many contemporary artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Nayland Blake and Tom Friedman.

"Erased De Kooning Drawing" by Robert Rauschenberg (1953)

"untitled" (eraser debris) by Tom Friedman (1990)

The Irrevocable Message

The irrevcable message trope can be traced as far back as the Ancient Greek play Antigone written by Sophocles in 442 B.C.E. In Antigone, Creon, the villain, tries to recall his order to have his niece burried alive, but he is too late because she has comitted suicide. The trope also appears in two Shakespeare plays; Richard III, and King Lear.

Today, the irrevocable message is a widely used trope in entertainment. We are often faced with a character who, either accidentally or out of anger, sends a message. This is then followed by a sequence of challenges which the character must venture through in order to retrieve the message. There are three possible endings:

1. the character is successful in retrieving the message.

example: The film Road Trip is centered around the retrieval of a video of the main character cheating on his girlfriend which he has accidentally mailed to her. He is successful in retrieving the video.

2. the character fails and must face the circumstances (which are usually life altering)

Example: In an episode of the Simpsons, Homer is fired due to an insulting letter, which Bart sent to Mr. Burns, and which homer was unable to retrieve.

3. the character fails but he faces no circumstances because the person who has received the message does not react negatively.

Example: In a Seinfeld episode titled “The Phone Message”, George tries to switch the tape in his girlfriends answering message in order to retrieve a message he left her before she can listen to it. Although George fails, his girlfriend does not get upset because she thinks it was a joke.

Snafus and Flame-o-grams

A “Snafu” is defined as “the dreaded mistake of sending an e-mail to the wrong person.”

A “flame-o-gram” is a term that was coined in the early 1980’s and is in refernce to “any kind of memo shot iff in a spit of anger.”

It is evident that some companies decided to capitalize on helping people avoid snafus and flame-o-grams. AOL’s “unsend” feature is the most widely known example. The unsend feature is specifically for AOL to AOL email, and only functions if the email has not yet been read by the recipient. Novell GroupWise and Microsoft Outlook allow their users to unsend a message, as long as the message was sent within the company to another user of that same software and hasn’t yet been read. Novell officials call this option the “save your job feature”. Eduora is another example. Eudora ranks as the second most popular e-mail server, preceded by Microsoft Outlook. The Eudora 5 software has a feature titled “mood watch” which tracks incoming and outgoing messages for offensive text, and rates each email on a scale of 1-3.

Other similar software developers such as Lotus do not support the unsend capability. This is because they disagree on the point at which the possession of an e-mail message transfers from a sender to a recipient. Also, Lotus does not want to risk the potential for user abuse of such a tool.

Erasure and Romance

Our interest in erasure seems to come up more often in the context of a romantic relationship than any other category. Nicholas Graham, an AOL spokesman stated that “The unsend button is popular with AOL users, particularly those using the Internet ot establish new relationships. They can ask someone for a date, for example, then quickly delete the message if they get cold feet…this is a very popular feature with the single members, as you can imagine.”Most of the cultural tropes mentioned earlier also take place in the context of a romantic relationship. The Seinfeld episode, the film Roadtrip, as well as the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are examples. Why does such a high level of hesitation and impulsivity only exist in a romantic context?

The Death of Erasure

The AOL unsend button has been removed and returned several times by AOL due to software issues. Although the unsend feature may still exist on some versions of AOL, it is dead in the sense that AOL is no longer a widely used email service, thus an AOL user will most probably not be able to use the unsend feature due to the fact that the recipient will most likely not have an AOL account. Another important change that has made our ability to unsend messages obsolete is the large increase in the number of times we check our messages. This is due in large part to the advent of cell phones that are capable of accessing email. This speed in message receiving no longer gives us the time to unsend a message.

The death of unsend corresponds with the death of erasure on the internet. There are a growing number of requests on internet forums by people who would like to “ungoogle” themselves. Search engines like Google have made erasure an almost impossible task as most things are cashed by Google and continue to come up during a search even if the information has been removed from the web.

Our solution to this problem seems to lie in a preemptive approach. Similar to the Eudora 5 software mentioned earlier, which assigns a mood rating to all incoming and outgoing email, Google has recently introduced a Gmail feature called Mail Goggles. When Mail Goggles is active, it will only allow you to send emails if you can complete 5 arithmetic problems in 60 seconds. This solution seems to simply discourage the use of email. Preemptive applications take away our right to decide for ourselves. This is the opposite of the concept of erasure, which was always a personal decision and furthered our freedom of speech.


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