As digital capture of our lives edges ever closer to ubiquity – and that seems to be where we’re heading – what are the consequences for memory and for judgement on both a personal and societal scale? Is it a curse or just a new aspect of the modern age that we’re inevitably making some mistakes in coming to terms with?
That’s the subject of a new book ‘Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting In A Digital Age’, and on 19th November I attended a talk at the RSA given by the author Victor Mayer-Schonberger, director of the information and innovation policy research centre at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, which was ably chaired by Kevin Anderson, Blogs Editor (now Digital Research Editor since December ’09) at The Guardian.
It’s a wide ranging topic, and a lot was covered, but the crux was this: the growing tendency to default to digitally documenting and sharing experience is creating a digital legacy that we as individuals are not fully able to control. In many cases this can lead to information being taken out of context, or shared beyond appropriate boundaries, with baleful (and other, still unknown) consequences.
Take a trio of now commonplace examples. The innocent party photo passed through Facebook or stored in Flickr or Google’s image archive means you’re passed over for a promotion or job, or sacked from your current one. The long past relationship is made ever present by related content from that time being accessible at the push of a button and compounded by current two or three-degrees connection to the ex. The holiday or special occasion is experienced less as something we live through intensely in the moment and later recollect at leisure, but is constantly punctuated with recording for posterity and increasingly stylised and calculated for the consumption of a small or not-so-small audience.
The second interlinked thesis is that our slowly evolved patterns of memory, learning and recollection are being distorted and un-bound by reliance on digital recording and storage. Memory reconstructs the past to minimise cognitive dissonance, the author explained. This is more potent and interesting, if an area I’m less familiar with. Normally, we cannot deliberately forget (for the reverse, see Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s fantastic movie Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) and memory naturally both selects, filters and deteriorates over time. But if the default is moving to not physiologically but digitally remembering, is the solution to delete?
Mayer-Schonberger is himself ambivalent about this, but citing a woman known as “AJ” he shared some compelling evidence of studies of human beings who have biological difficulties with forgetting. AJ experiences total recall as a curse. Tethered by an ever more detailed recollection of what has gone before, she is continually haunted by the past; resulting in an inability to live in the present, to generalise and to abstract from experience.
Another worrying consequence touched on by Mayer-Schonberger is our mass participation and compliance in the creation of a temporal Panopticon – in other words our collusion in the ability of institutions to store and always see our actions at any moment in time. My colleague Ian Delaney has written about this more eloquently than I can.
Accelerating referencing of digital content taken out of context – according to Mayer-Schonberger – means we also increasingly deny each other the capacity to change, evolve and grow and as such we are becoming a more unforgiving society. He floated an extreme scenario: what if we disregard our own recollection and instead depend solely on digital memory? Wouldn’t we have lost more than we had gained?
Clearly a thought experiment, he added the caveat that as only fragments of our experience are captured digitally, this cannot actually happen in totality. The problems right now – as mentioned with the careers, relationship and holiday examples – come when it happens on a piecemeal, ad hoc or imperceptible basis.
Solutions proposed by Mayer-Schonberger, include:
(1) Reintroduce forgetting by technological means – an expiration date put on information that we are prompted to input when we add time and GPS co-ordinates to data (or more simply, when we save it). The pitfall of this approach is if it’s public it can be copied by others and stored elsewhere.
(2) “Digital rusting” – a closer approximation of the tactile and receeding nature of memory. The issue with this is how we can know at the point of recording how we might feel about the material in the future. This might be a workable model for some public data, but personal information (and creation) has different implications, and personal and public often overlap. Ultimately, I feel current and future historians might beg to differ with this approach.
(3) Go back to forgetting by default. This means either we cease to record and save information (not gonna happen), or that we forget we have done so – which is a much worse nightmare! The key I think is that information, however private or public, somehow needs to be understood and placed in differing temporal and social dimensions.
(4) The dark side of the network – and the downside of the end of silos – is that because social conventions lag behind the increasing openness of information it’s easy to find “personal” information about “impersonal” connections, and once this data is exposed and fed into to impersonal judgements it’s not so easy to get a second chance. The solution? We should promote the exercise of judgement [privately and publicly, I presume], argued Mayer-Schonberger. Guy Parsons shared an optimistic twist on this at Chinwag Live: The Dark Side Of Social Media, an event I organised back in 2007. But not all elements of society will consistently act this way, so the risk remains.
If the wisest survival response is then self-censorship, how far should you go? Even private use of search engines is not immune. Mayer-Schonberger cited AOL’s now infamous search query datastream release c*ck-up in 2006, wherein the supposedly anonymized data of search records was rapidly traced by technologists at the New York Times to some of the individuals who’d created it. What if it you had been one of them? In turn, how much does constant watchfulness really benefit public and personal development? Is it right that privacy is being eroded so much that we need to be so careful?
Nico Macdonald made the point that you can’t code the solutions to social problems. This seemed uncontroversial as I don’t think much store has been put by the “expiry date” solution in responses to the book. We shouldn’t be “subjected” to technology but be more active in shaping it, he inferred. Perhaps that’s what we really need reminded of.
Much was said about search engines and the Internet Archive even got a namecheck. But the cash-strapped Internet Archive is shrinking not growing I’ve noticed. Google is dependent on the trust of its users, and that trust is tantamount to its business model Mayer-Schonberger stressed. But a recent remark by Google’s Eric Schmidt tells us this is changing. Facebook now faces the same issue. Despite their recent announcement about the Open Graph API and their latest privacy settings swerve, most people expect privacy from Facebook. Whether or not that expectation is foolish, Facebook could still be wrong-footed by being too open.
Returning to recall for a moment, timelines are something I’ve always thought that, conversely, digital content could do with more of but their genesis requires some subtlety and serious forethought. Fear of interrogating the past could diminish us as much as it might protect us. Surely it’s a function of human enquiry and maturity to be able to embrace our past, to reflect on and dwell in it on occasion without becoming paralysed like AJ? Why would the digital storage and referencing of past information stop us from being able to interpret it wisely and still live in the present? This is really where Mayer-Schonberger and I part paths.
Flexible and reliable privacy settings are just a feature that should come with such services. The first one I came across was Rememble, which enabled you save and store selected text messages, blogs, tweets, photos and other content in a visual timeline. Creator Gavin O’Carroll likened it in 2007 to a washing line for your digital bits and pieces. It was a narrative-led yet accessible framework for piecing together fragmented content and reconstructing memories, conversations and events at the personal level.
If you’re looking to place stuff in a larger historical context, a landmark project – sadly no longer existent – came in the form of Miomi. It was an exciting melding of content from different sources to create user generated history that I saw demoed at the Minibar start-up event in Brick Lane in 2007. Miomi allowed the user to zoom in and out of particular years and decades over the last century and a half and see relevant content (eg. from Wikipedia and public digital records) relating to that time, and also location, as well as annotating and adding their own. Unsurprisingly the more contemporary part was already very detailed. I’m doubtful it would have scaled well in terms of moderation and accuracy, but its ambition was refreshing. I’m sure it’s next-gen version is being cooked up somewhere.
So digital permanence was the dish of the day at the RSA. But the opposite view – that digital is an extremely fragile and ephemeral medium for so much of human culture and activity to be engraved and invested in, and that we should make far more effort to selectively and robustly archive it – wasn’t voiced at this event. Paradoxically digital content is both brittle and persistent, transitory and important. There is no black or white answer to seek refuge in.
Finally the context question. In his talk Mayer-Schonberger seemed to side with the view that personal digital content – in the very act of being accessed beyond me and forwards in time – always lacks a contextual ‘je ne sais quoi’. Granted he may say much more than this in the book (I have it on order) but this is where the story both begins and ends.
While I can’t talk with any depth about the brain’s gradually evolved ability to remember and recollect, surely the digital overlay is just a new frontier for the human ability to record and sometimes simultaneously interlace experience with another layer of data?
We’ve done it before. We drew pictures, told stories and wrote books. These things took time to permeate our cultures but they enriched them. In the last century we had social panics about radio, recorded music, film and then television being available to the masses (just as we had panics about women voting and going to work, for instance). More recently, there was somewhat more minor fretting that people listening to walkmans walked this earth as if in a bubble. It’s funny when you look back on it now – because it’s y’know, recorded – and remember…
Now the context is evolving. That’s why creative projects such Britglyph and Open Plaques are intriguing, using the medium as a canvas to help us collectively discover, trace and find new ways to map meaning and think about human activity back and forth in time. This is what Bill Thompson was driving at when he described Britglyph as “a fascinating example of what is possible when you work with the grain of the internet, building something around the things the network makes possible.”
So rather than disgorging personal data to the network, we should always be curating and shaping. That’s the trump card digitally-augmented context – mastered and done well – is bringing to the table.
Are we really so incapable of adapting to and interpreting new contexts that this growing layer of digital information augmenting our lives will render us personally dysfunctional? Or worse still, divided into slaves to “one ring that rules them all” (whether that’s Facebook, Google or your friendly local authorities) on one side, and savvy digital invisibles on the other. Or is this just the messy late-teenage phase of the unfolding web canvas? It seems like it could go either way.
Last words, for now, go to Chris Stein circa 1978.
…watchful lines vibrate soft in brainwave time.
Silver pictures move so slow.
Golden tubes faintly glow.
Electric faces seem to merge.
Hidden voices mock your words.
Fade away and radiate.
Fade away and radiate.
Beams become my dream.
My dream is on the screen.
Apologies and thanks to Stein et al for the title.