The Internet never forgets

Cover of I remember this one time, at BarCamp Dublin, I went to Darren Barefoot’s presentation, and he said

Things live forever on the web … the internet never forgets.

Total recall online is now a common trope, and one which forms the starting point of Viktor Mayer-Schönberger‘s provocative new book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton University Press, 2009). Your privacy is gone, and you don’t know what you’ve lost till it’s too late. Two years ago, Dan Solove warned in The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (Yale University Press, 2007) that a permanent online chronicle of our private lives could mean that the freedom of the internet makes us less free. Now, for the “future that is forever unforgiving because it is unforgetting”, Mayer-Schönberger proposes the remedy of induced forgetting for the internet’s elephantine memory (from the abstract):

Delete looks at the surprising phenomenon of perfect remembering in the digital age, and reveals why we must reintroduce our capacity to forget. … The digital realm remembers what is sometimes better forgotten, and this has profound implications for us all. … digital technology and global networks are overriding our natural ability to forget … He explains why information privacy rights and other fixes can’t help us, and proposes an ingeniously simple solution–expiration dates on information–that may.

Read an interview with the author about the book here. The first chapter is available here (pdf). In it, he argues:

Forgetting plays a central role in human decision­making. It lets us act in time, cognizant of, but not shackled by, past events. Through perfect memory we may lose a fundamental human capacity—to live and act firmly in the present. … Forgetting is not just an individual behavior. We also forget as a society. Often such societal forgetting gives individuals who have failed a second chance. … our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experi­ences and adjust our behavior.

As a consequence, to “reinstate the default of forgetting”, he argues that a combination of law and software would cause data to expire, unless a human specifically chose retention instead. It’s a provocative, if utopian, ideal. I would like it to work, but I’m skeptical – for so long as there is not central internet regulation, there is no means to compel or police such an approach. Instead, in a discussion of an earlier version of Mayer-Schönberger’s argument, Danah Boyd argued that

.. the solution is not to fight the ubiquity of memory but to adapt. “No amount of structural intervention is going to combat this,” Boyd says. “People, particularly younger people, are going to come up with coping mechanisms. That’s going to be the shift, not any intervention by a governmental or technological body.”

One of those coping mechanisms:

So really the answer is not that the Internet should forget, or that shouldn’t remember all these details. The answer is that as a society we need to be better at making judgements and be a bit more forgiving at times.


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