Taming the elephant

Via Bruce Schneier, a thought-provoking paper from Viktor Mayer-Schönberger in Harvard’s JFK School of Government, on the need to build ‘forgetfulness’ into computers:

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.

A major drawback of the increasing surveillance of children is that CCTV, tracking devices and databases don’t know when to turn a blind eye – a skill that parents and teachers develop to an advanced level.

When data, risk-assessments and in-depth profiles of a child can be stored indefinitely, that drawback becomes a major problem. Does anyone really want to remember their every childhood misdeed? Those little acts of spitefulness or dishonesty, the episodes of shame or pain? Part of our growth into adulthood is about constructing a version of ourselves that we can live with. Time helps us to bury grim or embarrassing memories, or at least sand the splinters off them, so that we can write ourselves a reasonably coherent and manageable autobiography. While some may brave rigorous self-analysis, for most of us there can be such a thing as too much truth.

If computers don’t forget, and they contain enough data to chatter people’s childhoods back to them years later, how will anybody cope with that? What about the person with unbearable memories, or the one who passed through a period of complete delinquency? Sometimes reinventing oneself is a survival tactic, or a chance to clean the slate and start again.

And as if that’s not enough, there’s all the stuff that children themselves put on blogs or My Space. Would you really want to see the lovesick letter you posted to the ‘Take That’ fan club message board ever again? There might come a time when the press would want to, though, or an employer, or someone who hated you.

Quite honestly, building forgetfulness into computers sounds like a very healthy idea to me.


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