“Forgetting in the digital age” - Viktor Mayer-Schönberger talk at the Guardian

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 13 June 2011
“We have to assume that anything we say or do online will be available for decades” - Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

We’ve been having a whole series of lunchtime talks at the Guardian about various aspects of digital media, including some given by internal staff like our SEO Editorial Executive Chris Moran or Readers Editor Chris Elliott about his experiences of social media in Egypt, and by external speakers like Dr. Sue Black talking about her campaign to save Bletchley Park. Just recently we were visited by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Professor of Internet Governance & Regulation from the Oxford Internet Institute. He was talking about “Forgetting in the digital age”, and how “digital permanence” was a problem for humans and society.

His argument runs that for nearly all of human biological history, the default position has been to forget things. It takes effort to remember and recall the fraction of our thoughts, feelings and existence that our brains can manage. As a species we have developed tools like story-telling, writing and painting in order to preserve memories outside of our biological limitations. And then suddenly, in the space of a decade, this default has switched to nearly everything being digitally remembered. EXIF data in our Flickr photo tracks our movements, Facebook relationship status updates keep a public record of our social interactions, and Google preserves every query we’ve ever asked the internet.

This is damaging, he says, because forgetting is partly how we deal with the passing of time. We cannot forgive if we don’t forget, he says, as the emotional rawness of an experience recedes into our memories. He suggests that we are at risk of creating a “temporal panopticon”, as we end up self-censoring expression on the web for fear of what our opinions may look like in the future, or how our children might see the way we record their childhood online.

Viktor’s proposal is an “expiry date” for information - when we save information digitally he suggests we are also asked to set a date when the information expires. He doesn’t suggest that you can’t set the date a long, long way into the future, or that the information automatically deletes itself. Instead he thought that the very act of being prompted to consider how long information would be useful for would help restore our ability to decay the significance of information over time.

Another suggestion he had was that perhaps older information should take longer to retrieve. For example, when you searched your email, only recent messages would appear at first. Older, and most likely less relevant messages, would only appear in the search results after a short time. If it was harder to stumble across old information, he says, it might lesson the chance of accidentally coming across it. His example revolved around a woman searching her email, and being confronted with a dispute she had with a friend over ten years ago. The electronic record of the upset triggered all of the bad feelings again. Reading old love letters, he said, can have a powerful emotional effect on us, but you usually have to make a conscious effort to do so. When ten years worth of electronic life is at your fingertips via search, the chances of triggering these intense emotions and being unable to let go of the past is greater.

Digital preservation is a subject that I am fascinated by, as you may know from my worries about accurately preserving how websites looked and behaved in the early years of the internet. But just because we can store and archive everything, should we? I sometimes ponder deleting a lot of the early entries on this blog, as the subject matter is outdated, I’m embarrassed by some of the writing style, and I don’t think the pages are of much use to anyone who alights on them via Google. But why delete them if disk space is cheap and my database isn’t creaking yet?

Viktor’s talk also called to mind an idea Jonathan Austin had when I was on a team with him at the Knight-Mozilla News Innovation Jam. Talking about comment threads, he pointed out that since 90% of conversation is ephemeral and not meant to last, why do we insist on preserving the comments underneath news articles forever? Maybe they should only appear for a couple of hours, and only get preserved if people go on to interact with them.

You can get a flavour of Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s talk in this video:

See also: Guardian 190 and digital permanence
Preserving the Guardian’s digital World Cup archives
The vandalism of the BBC’s online history
The oldest content on the BBC’s web servers
“People Don’t Like Basements But Tapes Do” - A Tour of the BBC Film Archive at Windmill Road

2 Comments

Before your article I thought of it the other way around. That people forget more today. People remember with the help of computers ,mobile phones and navigation systems. Without these some people are already lost today. How many telephone numbers can you remember? I can remember many that are pre-mobile phone , post-mobile phone very few.

I've pondered these things too. I created a website that is very mickey-mouse as my first effort into using the internet and I've thought about deleting it.

But whilst I agree that reading something that would've otherwise been forgotten and getting upset as a result is a bad thing, I do think we can learn to adjust. Maybe if we viewed the internet as a super efficient memory we'll learn not to disturb it too often unless we're very sure of what we're looking for?

And perhaps all of this just serves to make us more human. It's natural to regret mistakes and bad performances but as every single one of us likely has at least a few things that we could have done better perhaps we will grow more tolerant of each other when we see others errors and realise that they aren't perfect either.

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