Teaching the Internet and Web to forget (and forgive)?

“As humans we have the capacity to remember – and to forget. For millennia remembering was hard, and forgetting easy. By default, we would forget. Digital technology has inverted this. Today, with affordable storage, effortless retrieval and global access remembering has become the default, for us individually and for society as a whole. We store our digital photos irrespective of whether they are good or not – because even choosing which to throw away is too time-consuming, and keep different versions of the documents we work on, just in case we ever need to go back to an earlier one. Google saves every search query, and millions of video surveillance cameras retain our movements. In this article I analyze this shift and link it to technological innovation and information economics. Then I suggest why we may want to worry about the shift, and call for what I term data ecology. In contrast to others I do not call for comprehensive new laws or constitutional adjudication. Instead I propose a simple rule that reinstates the default of forgetting our societies have experienced for millennia, and I show how a combination of law and technology can achieve this shift.”

This abstract of a paper by a Professor at Harvard brings to light what we often tend to forget whenever we put up a self-depreciating or risqué video, a photo or a story on a social networking site such as Facebook or send it around via email – the Internet and web don’t easily forget. The consequences of such material available for years on end after we initially post them can range from mildly embarrassing to extremely serious.

Should the Net forget? is a recent post that examines the darker side of information in the public domain that is erroneous and yet continues to affect the lives of those connected with the story.

Useful Void: The Art of Forgetting in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing ends with a fascinating proposal – introduction the art of forgetting to information architectures such as the Internet, the web and what is increasingly called the cloud – ubiquitous, always-on information generation, dissemination and archival systems.

I propose that we shift the default when storing personal information back to where it has been for millennia, from remembering forever to forgetting over time. I suggest that we achieve this reversal with a combination of law and software. The primary role of law in my proposal is to mandate that those who create software that collects and stores data build into their code not only the ability to forget with time, but make such forgetting the default.

Recent cases involving Facebook suggest not just concerns of the invasion of privacy, but also the dangers of information that reside on the servers of commercial corporations with incredible definitions of privacy and more dangerously, are used by many who simply don’t understand the perils of putting information only meant for close friends and relations for public display on the web.

This raises some interesting design considerations for web and Internet architectures in support of peacebuilding and reconciliation. How does one build in forgetfulness into these systems? Technically, this would far less a challenge than selling a “forgetful” system to stakeholders in a peace process, conditioned by a Google-mentality to believe that information must be stored for eternity. Does a “forgetful” system aid or impede reconciliation? If systems are made to forget, can we make them remember on demand? And if so, what would be the purpose of making the system forget in the first instance – is it just to make it harder for people to access information after a given period of time?

As Nicholas Carr avers:

So if we are programming the Web to remember, should we also be programming it to forget – not by expunging information, but by encouraging certain information to drift, so to speak, to the back of the Web’s mind?

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