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Remember when we could forget?

posted by:Jeremy Hessing-Lewis // 12:39 PM // May 15, 2007 // Commentary &/or random thoughts | General | TechLife

CBC's "The Current" ran an excellent piece on the Internet's memory (available in podcast HERE). The broadast began with an interview with Michael Fertik of ReputationDefender.com. Fertik notes:

"We've never had to live before with our momentary mistakes in judgment for the rest of our lives, which is sort of a global tattooing machine."

The Internet's memory is then discussed by Brewster Kahle, creator of The Internet Archive, and Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, of Harvard University and author of Useful Void: The Art of Forgetting in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing. These commentators draw attention to the simultaneous social necessity of both forgetting and remembering and how these natural functions are being skewed by network computing.

On the one side, Mayer-Schönberger notes that forgetting is a natural cognitive process that has yet to be re-learned by information technologies. He gives the example of Google's storage of every search query by every user and every result that they clicked-on since the start of the service. In other words, Google never forgets. In his paper, Mayer-Schönberger writes:

For millennia, humans have had to deliberately choose what to remember. The default was to forget. In the digital age, this default of forgetting has changed into a default of remembering.
His response is to reintroduce the concept of time by introducing expiry dates associated with data. For example, Google's Gmail service should give users the ability to wipe data after a certain period.

In contrast, Kahle describes the importance of archiving the web in order to fulfill the library's role of creating a "memory institution" in order to give reference to what people have seen before. Without such a service, he suggests that we live in an Orwellian universe where we are locked in the "perpetual present."

Kahle concludes: "How do you select what should be kept and what shouldn't be kept?" For example, we as a society may want to hold corporations accountable for statements made in the previous quarter. He adds that the really scary aspect is less the published content and more of the usage data such as the Google searches.

We are left with an awkward computing architecture where information is both fleeting and permanent. Users are left trying to remember when we could forget.

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