The virtue of forgetting…

Forgetting things is annoying isn’t it? Anniversaries, names of places and people, poems, formulae, book titles, the postcode, the name of the singer and where you left the keys. Names are a nightmare. In the midst of an intellectual exposition I can recall the faces, the clothes and when/where we last met but the white bubble above the head where the name should be remains tauntingly blank, the contents sneaking back at some later point in time – if I’m lucky there will be time to reassure my audience that the memory was not a fantasy, but often the forgotten monikers return hours later, when I am trying to remember something else. A better memory would save so much time – no need to re-read prose on which I have already spent hours, or to go through every CD until I find the title of the song I just can’t remember. Top of the annoying list has to be forgetting the perfect wording which drifted effortlessly into my mind an hour or so ago .. and yes, my pile of notebooks (write it down when you think of it) is now so unwieldy that I need to index them. Ha!.

But help is at hand in our information society, where we co-exist alongside our digitized books, music, photos, videos, diaries, lists, contacts and ideas. Once uploaded into cyberspace all the stuff we need to remember is permanently recorded for us – just waiting to be plucked out of the ether by the right keyword. Free text indexing gives us endless points of access, a name, a place, a date or subject, can produce our media like magic. Remembered or forgotten, it is all still there, just waiting patiently. The electronic box in the attic. Even things we gave away and forgot about for decades can be retrieved from services such as Ebay, Abe Books and Amazon. The antidote to regret.

And in our work, preservation of material is often our main focus. We professionalize the art of selecting what to remember and the best way to remember it – in archives and records management, and even in libraries. The challenges of digitizing and preserving material in a society where yesterday’s format is something you were using this morning, are things we thrive on. We are keeping the past alive for the future.

And yet … something about this permanent, digital shoebox has troubled me for about a year now – since I began uploading myself into the ether, in fact; I mean – how long does this digital shadow trail after us? Well forever duh…. even when we die. Not a new worry, and of course, not a new answer, but I am prompted to write after listening to Vicktor Mayer-Schonberger talking about his book “Delete – the virtue of forgetting in the digital age“, in which he raises the question of whether there are some cases in which forgetting is better than remembering. As an aside, the book is a good read, and I recommend it to anyone taking our LAPIS (INM380) module next semester.

Returning to my concerns, I think there are two facets to the wonder memory of cloud computing and USBs. The good bit is that public domain data can be preserved for everyone – the bad bit is that so can personal data. And whilst I accept that it is often hard to define what is public and what is personal (personal letters found in an attic and published after the authors death ..?) it is clear by now that much of what we hope will remain personal, is is fact, horribly public.

I have often read of how you can never delete a Facebook profile – you merely deactivate it. Is this the same for other social networking sites? A permanent record of the person you were when you were 11 ( or 35 …) – sitting there waiting to be hacked in the present or pillaged in the future?

What happens to all those primary school friends to whom you bestow complete access to what’s on your mind and in your photographs – do you starkly unfriend them (no quotes – this is a real word now) as you evolve, or do they slither after you years into another life. Remember anyone from primary school ? High school ? Are they still part of your life? (ok – with three exceptions I can say no. The thing is that it is hard to move on when our digital shadow bites at our heels even in the dark.

Viktor raised issues of ‘amusing’ photos being retrieved to ruin someone’s career, and of seemingly buried, throwaway admissions being retrieved 40 years later to serve as a reason for being refused entry to the US. Others quickly furnished the event with perhaps more chilling examples – ever posted your undying love for someone on your social networking site ? Ever cried over the keyboard as you ‘delete’ your entire profile and start again using your middle name?

Ever conducted an affair by email ? Did it end badly ? Did you use del *.* ? Did he? It’s all still on a server somewhere isn’t it ? Maybe copied to someone’s USB. Waiting.

And to add to our woes Google keeps details of every search undertaken, and results clicked on for 9 months (this was reported at the event and I have not checked this definitively) – all linked to a specific IP address. Do you keep clicking on his website ? Sad. Worse – everyone at Google knows.

After 9 months the Google data is anonymized. But how hard is it to pinpoint someone from anonymized data if you are determined ? Hmmm.

So what’s the answer? How can we publish our fabulous lifestyles to our cohorts without risking future ridicule or consequences? How can we ensure that the contents of the box in the attic remain something poignant yet personal? Do we have to self-censor all the time? Viktor Mayer-Schonberger suggests the use of ‘expiry dates’ on electronic media, so that our past does not have to haunt us. In the meantime, dear reader, do not marry into royalty, or enter politics.