Benefits of Forgetting

Interesting and scholarly study from Kennedy School of Government’s Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, titled “Useful Void: The Art of Forgetting in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing”. In the study, the author points to change in our default societal behavior, from forgetting unimportant things to remembering everything.

In March 2007, Google confirmed that since its inception it had stored every search query every user ever made and every search result she ever clicked on. Google remembers forever.

“хранить вечно“ (to be preserved forever) the KGB stamped the dossiers on its political prisoners. The Communist state would never forget the identity, believes, actions and words of those that had opposed it.

Like the Soviet state, Google does not forget. But unlike the Soviet Union that ceased to exist fifteen years ago, Google has become an indispensable tool for hundreds of millions of people around the world, who use it every day. We seem to have accepted that our digital society may forgive, but no longer forgets.

This has resulted in a drastic shift in our data retention behavior. For millennia it was difficult and costly to preserve. We would only do so in exceptional circumstances, and most frequently only for a limited period of time. For almost all of human history, most of what humans experienced was quickly forgotten. Today, however, retention of digital data is (relatively) easy and cheap. As a consequence, and absent other considerations, we keep rather than delete it. This is the central point: In our analog past, the default was to discard rather than preserve; today the default is to retain.

Credit bureaus store extensive information about hundreds of millions of U.S. citizens. Daniel Solove writes that the largest US provider of marketing information offers up to 1,000 data points for each of the 215 million individuals in its database. We also see the combination of formerly disparate data sources. Solove mentions a company that provides a consolidated view at data from 20,000 different sources across the world. It retains the data, he writes, even if individuals dispute its accuracy.

Companies keep our air travel reservations on file even when we decide not to buy the ticket, together with rich information about us and our previous travel patterns.21 Millions of cameras in public places – the UK alone is said to operate between 2 and 3 million produce records of our movements that are kept. Law enforcement agencies store biometric information about tens of millions of individuals even if these have never been charged with a crime. Search engines retain each of our search queries, and keeps archival copies of our web pages long after we have taken them offline.

This is only the beginning. With the advent of ubiquitous computing, of cheap GPS chips in our cell phones, cameras and cars, of RFID tags in everyday objects, and of tiny, networked sensors that surround us, a more comprehensive trail of our actions will be collected than ever before. Given low cost of storage, ease of retrieval and potential value in accessing information, much of the data that is being collected will be kept for months if not years, as our societal default has shifted from deletion to retention.

This has drastic consequences beyond the obvious ability to know much more about other people’s preferences, behaviors, actions and opinions than in the analog world of incremental forgetting. Living in a world in which our lives are being recorded and records are being retained, in which societal forgetting has been replaced by precise remembering, will profoundly influence how we view our world, and how we behave in it.

If whatever we do can be held against us years later, if all our impulsive comments are preserved, they can easily be combined into a composite picture of ourselves. Afraid how our words and actions may be perceived years later and taken out of context, the lack of forgetting may prompt us speak less freely and openly. This is the temporal version of a panoptic society, in which everything is being watched; it is a society in which most of what is being recorded and collected is being preserved. Regardless of other concerns we may have, it is hard to see how such an unforgetting world could offer us the open society that we are used to today.

So what is the solution? The author suggests a combination of legislative and technical approaches that restore the default of forgetting in our society. So if some entity or person wanted to remember things beyond certain time period, they would need to do some special action like writing down in digital terms…I think this makes a lot of sense and could prevent common people from becoming more and more like stage coached politicians who  plan and practice each and every one of their moves and utterances…What do you think?


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