"Like the Soviet state, Google does not forget."
May 3, 2007 11:22 AM   Subscribe

Useful Void: The Art of Forgetting in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing. Like they said in Strange Days, "Memories are meant to fade. They're designed that way for a reason." What happens when there's a record online of every site you've ever visited, every flippant comment you've ever made, every embarrassing question you've ever asked? Maybe computers, like people, should be designed to forget.
posted by MsMolly (35 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
From the article:

"My proposal aims to reintroduce the concept of forgetting over time into our digital realm. My goal is to shift the default back from retaining forever to deleting after a certain time. At its core, my proposal does not envision that users cannot change the expiry dates if they want to – the digital equivalent of taking a napkin of somebody’s address and putting it neatly in a file to preserve it. In a sense, we have had the ability to do that almost forever. But it required a deliberate act; and that is what I suggest our digital devices require from us, too."
posted by MsMolly at 11:24 AM on May 3, 2007

Google-bombs never forget.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:31 AM on May 3, 2007

Where is this record online of every site I've ever visited?

Also, isn't this what anonymity is for? No one is forcing you to use your real identity. If there's something online that you're ashamed of, you weren't careful enough.
posted by saraswati at 11:41 AM on May 3, 2007

That thing that never forgets?
I call it my Mother.
posted by Dizzy at 11:42 AM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

The article reminded me a bit of the Spider Robinson short story "Melancholy Elephants." (link goes to the full text on baen.com).

Basically it imagines a world in which copyright is perpetual and computers automatically search any new works for similarity to existing ones. The convergence of the digitization of just about everything under the sun, effective search, perpetual retention, and ever-expanding copyright laws makes the story seem all the more realistic these days.

The story has been linked in Metafilter comments a few times before. My apologies if it's taken for granted that people are aware of it 'round these parts.
posted by jedicus at 11:53 AM on May 3, 2007

Where is this record online of every site I've ever visited?

If you use Google Toolbar, and leave on the default "Send PageRank Data" (I believe) setting on, all your browsing data gets sent to Google. The upside is that Google provides a tool to navigate through years and years of your browsing history. The downside is that years and years of your browsing history are stored at Google.
posted by mkultra at 11:58 AM on May 3, 2007

Memories are meant to fade. They're designed that way for a reason.

Can I get a POST HOC??
posted by DU at 12:02 PM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

If memories fade, history is easier to rewrite. This doesn't sound so good to me.
posted by found dog one eye at 12:07 PM on May 3, 2007

This comment is going on my permanent record.
posted by brundlefly at 12:11 PM on May 3, 2007

I've decided to implement his proposal on the more highly-favorited comments of other users.
posted by cortex at 12:25 PM on May 3, 2007

That thing that never forgets?
I call it my Mother.

No, no, no. We all know what really doesn't forget.
posted by sparkletone at 12:33 PM on May 3, 2007

Just don’t make embarrassing comments. I don’t tell people I entice squirrels up my ass with chunky peanut butter. Other people should probably think twice before making comments they don’t want to stand forever too.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:40 PM on May 3, 2007

Thanks for this. Just today I was thinking about the limits and possibilities of describing personal experience with memory loss using technological metaphors for data loss.

What I find most intriguing, here and in many other misc. reflections online and off, is the persistent and versatile use of the human brain as metaphor and model for the internet (especially in what it reveals about how we go about crafting an understanding of how systems work- or, in this case, should work).

Anyone know of other writings that have tackled this, intentionally or incidentally, that you have found useful or just plain interesting?
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 12:44 PM on May 3, 2007

Where is this record online of every site I've ever visited?

Sitting in sitelogs. Every webserver, by default, saves a record which includes the IP address that a page was sent too. Most of the time those logs are 'rotated' and deleted, but sometimes they're not. But I guarantee you that every web page you've visited in the past hour is logged somewhere, probably for the past day. As you go father and farther back, that stuff is more and more likely to be deleted. But it does get recorded
posted by delmoi at 1:07 PM on May 3, 2007

I entice squirrels up my ass with chunky peanut butter.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:40 PM on May 3 [+][!]

I see what you did there.
posted by mek at 2:12 PM on May 3, 2007

Gee, I could've sworn I wrote a book about something like this...
posted by adamgreenfield at 2:20 PM on May 3, 2007

Maybe computers, like people, should be designed to forget.

No, people need to grow up.
posted by vertriebskonzept at 2:39 PM on May 3, 2007

/forgot to hit preview
posted by Smedleyman at 2:55 PM on May 3, 2007

Gee, I could've sworn I wrote a book about something like this...

Did anyone read it?

I couldn't resist. With 48,000 Google hits, I don't doubt that it is a fine and important book.
posted by Kwantsar at 3:38 PM on May 3, 2007

Gee, I could've sworn I wrote a book about something like this...
posted by adamgreenfield at 2:20 PM on May 3

As my request for further reading suggests, not all of us are equally in the loop on these things. But assuming that your name is indeed Adam Greenfield (vs. a reference to a beloved pet or 50s sitcom character) I'm sure I'll be able to find your book.

Though if you are actually Philip K. Dick posting as adamgreenfield, now would be a good time to bring that up.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 4:03 PM on May 3, 2007

to hell with which pages I've viewed - just remind me which sites I've registered at, with which user names and password combos.

< / old fogey moment>
posted by rmm at 4:18 PM on May 3, 2007

Though if you are actually Philip K. Dick posting as adamgreenfield

adamgreenfield is indeed Adam Greenfield and his book is called Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing and I still haven't read it because I am a horrible monster who deserves death, even though he was kind enough to send me a prerelease digital copy which I have since misplaced.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:47 PM on May 3, 2007

to hell with which pages I've viewed - just remind me which sites I've registered at, with which user names and password combos.

The anonymization gained from the concept of usernames goes a long way towards mitigating the data retention issue. I personally use variations of about four usernames on all the sites I comment on, depending on the purpose of the site. It's not likely to happen, but if I decided I didn't want to be "aeschenkarnos" and I wanted to dissociate my "self" from "his" comments (as an aside, the English language doesn't yet handle multiple identities well) I wouldn't find it difficult to do so.

On the down side, every petty little website these days demands I go through the somewhat annoying process of creating an account, emailing myself a password, activating that password, blah-di-blah-di-blah etc and so on, before I can write a comment, view pictures, etc etc. In most cases I'll never come back to that website again, and even if I do, chances are good I'd have forgotten my password if I didn't use a system (and even though I do, I still forget them a lot - which necessitates another annoying round of emailing and activation and delays, just to make one short comment). Sigh ...
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:53 PM on May 3, 2007

"No, no, no. We all know what really doesn't forget."

Rock and roll?
posted by klangklangston at 6:43 PM on May 3, 2007

The anonymization gained from the concept of usernames goes a long way towards mitigating the data retention issue

Then one runs into assholes who, though they themselves are anonymous, try to track you down like they think they're being all clever.

It reminds me (albeit, too late) of the lesson from Heinrich Böll's Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum: Privacy is reserved for the bullies of the world. If you try to stake a measure of a private existence, prepare to get beaten down for it.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:25 PM on May 3, 2007

Just don’t make embarrassing comments.

I was going to respond, then realized that just about every comment anyone makes about anything can be embarrasing at some point or another in the future, so I decided against it.

maybe I should just unplug the keyboard
posted by davejay at 11:16 PM on May 3, 2007

Can I have a postrelease copy of that book adam? I promise I won't lose it like stav did.

also -

Metafilter - Enticing squirrels up your ass with chunky peanut butter.
posted by longbaugh at 3:59 AM on May 4, 2007

I thought we were supposed to Never Forget.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 5:17 AM on May 4, 2007

Sorry, yeah, I got a little snarky because I spent a decent chunk of the book dealing with ideas like this, and the linked paper doesn't cite it. It's his right, and of course you can't stay on top of everything, even in a relatively narrow field like this, but I was disappointed.

My stance is that the present "global mnemotechnical system" (the phrase is Bernard Steigler's) preserves information in ways uncontemplated for the most part by our societies, that its bedrock assumptions about the persistence of memory is at strong variance with what seems to be the human default. We find, now, that we truly can't escape ourselves, and I think this is going to change both us and the societies we live in at some fairly deep level.

I also think we should be especially careful when we think our actions are anonymous. Any one act may seem to leave little in the way of evidence that ties it back to you, but when all such traces can trivially be gathered and correlated, you'd be amazed how quickly your individual identity pops out against the background of noise.

For example, last year a reporter for the NYT, IIRC, took a few hundred entirely anonymous Google searches originating from one IP block, and, by elimination, very quickly drilled down to the one most likely human being who would have made those searches.

Similarly, more everyday physical traits than you'd ever believe wind up providing unique biometric signatures - sure, they're not DNA, but they're sufficiently unique, anyway, for reasonably confident determinations of identity: unconscious things like grip pattern or gait period. And the state of the art in embedded sensors being what it is, these can increasingly be gathered without your awareness. The upshot is that a far wider range of your activity can be captured, stored and, even if not tagged with your identity at the moment, archived until some later relational correlation can be performed.

Ultimately, this redefines surveillance. And just as Foucault points out that the docile body internalizes the surveillant gaze, my concern is not so much "ZOMG, we're being spied on," as that for good and sufficient reason, we all begin to act under the assumption that anything we do at all times is subject to capture and correlation.

To me, that's not such a pleasant world to live in. Younger generations may find their MMV.

(Sorry for the long-ass comment.)
posted by adamgreenfield at 6:15 AM on May 4, 2007 [4 favorites]

Now *that's* the kind of discussion I hoped this would get going! I'm definitely going to check out your book.
posted by MsMolly at 7:31 AM on May 4, 2007

Adam, thanks for the thoughts, which are wonderfully provocative and very much worth a long-ass comment. Much writing on the world of the internet is premised on the paradigm of "revolution"- namely, that what we're experiencing is a radical break with the past. Like most historians, I'm always suspicious of interpretations premised on the conviction of discontinuity, so I have a disciplinary bias in these matters. And it's crucial to recognize what's genuinely new and different about a phenomenon to understand how culture and consciousness change.

But there seems to be some tension in your comment between continuity and discontinuity. For example, to what extent do these technologies really fundamentally "redefine surveillance" if we can still understand them within a Foucauldian framework- a framework that has as its point of departure a set of transformations in the relationship between private and public and between individuals and systems in 18th c. Europe? Clearly, the technology itself is new, but the kinds of shifts in consciousness and what it means to act, communicate, and be in the world that you describe here seem to be extensions of dynamics that have been playing out over the "long now" of the last few centuries.

Which doesn't mean that you aren't correct about the consequences. Just that I think it’s easy to overestimate the extent to which we are seeing the emergence of something entirely new, rather than an extension of certain trends that preceded these technologies, and which in turn suggests that there's a dynamic and reciprocal relationship between culture and technological innovation.

Related: have you seen this? Just heard him speak and was all kinds of fascinated.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 8:37 AM on May 4, 2007

Sorry, to clarify: when I say everyware "redefines surveillance," I mean that the new technologies under discussion permit observations of vastly greater scope, reach and subtlety than what is generally implied in the way the word is used in everyday life, i.e. visual observation and audio capture in real time.

Surveillance is no longer a matter of secret policemen, security cameras and hidden microphones, in other words, but a regime that:
- (a) provides for the relational correlation of
- (b) facts gathered arbitraily remotely in both space and time
- (c) encompassing both volitional (MetaFilter posts) and nonvolitional (biometric traces) evidence
- (d) to construct a fact pattern or inferential judgment about behavior
- (e) made available to any interested party, institutional or civilian.

I share your skepticism about claims of "the revolutionary," believe me, but that's new and different enough for me!
posted by adamgreenfield at 8:51 AM on May 4, 2007

Surveillance hints at some conscious intent, while what we're dealing with seems more an accidental result of the continued development of information technology... largely a failure of imagination or inclination with regards to privacy in the field.

Ultimately the social shift you hint at will have to occur, and fast; if you think today's political scandals are petty, just wait till 20 years from now, when we can check what all our politicians were downloading or googling 20 years ago. Our inability to conceal our "darker" selves will probably result in the erosion of taboos.
posted by mek at 9:58 AM on May 4, 2007

I like chunky peanut butter.
posted by Twang at 2:27 PM on May 4, 2007

Neat link, thanks for your input too adamgreenfield. Here at MeFi we deal with this probably once a week when a longtime user or sometimes even a new user regrets something they've said a while ago or has second thoughts about something that has been posted recently. This becomes interesting because while the MeFi database never forgets and the Google index of the site never forgets a lot of times most of the users forget most things. So, we get into situations where a user who was posting as a nearly teenager several years ago is now looking for a job and suddenly realizing what is out there about them.

Even if we purge that sort of stuff from MeFi -- which is replete with its own issues becuase that often means deleting the work of other people which is not at all cricket imo -- that info is out there, cross-posted and pollinated, on the nets. No matter how many times we say things in the FAQ about your info being out there and hard to dissasociate from your username once that happens, people's lives change and the same person that thought it would be a good idea to sign up with an easy-to-link-to-them username may have changed as a person in five years and now may not think that's so great.

While we'll let people sign up a new account, we generally don't change usernames and to the best of my knowledge don't purge comment histories (there may be an exception that disproves this rule, but I don't know it) and so you're stuck with ... you, in a way you probably wouldn't be stuck with some stupid thing you did five years ago at a party, with some rare exceptions.
posted by jessamyn at 12:37 PM on May 5, 2007

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