Forgetting again

In an article entitled The future of loneliness Olivia Laing writes about the promises and disappointments provided by the internet as a means of sharing and communicating. This isn’t particularly new ground and she readily acknowledges the work of Sherry Turkle in this area. The article is the vanguard of a forthcoming book called The Lonely City. I’m hopeful that the book won’t be just another baseless luddite reactionary moral panic as exemplified by the likes of Andrew Keen and Susan Greenfield.

But there’s one section of the article where Laing stops providing any data (or even anecdotal evidence) and presents a supposition as though it were unquestionably fact:

With this has come the slowly dawning realisation that our digital traces will long outlive us.

Citation needed.

I recently wrote a short list of three things that are not true, but are constantly presented as if they were beyond question:

  1. Personal publishing is dead.
  2. JavaScript is ubiquitous.
  3. Privacy is dead.

But I didn’t include the most pernicious and widespread lie of all:

The internet never forgets.

This truism is so pervasive that it can be presented as a fait accompli, without any data to back it up. If you were to seek out the data to back up the claim, you would find that the opposite is true—the internet is in constant state of forgetting.

Laing writes:

Faced with the knowledge that nothing we say, no matter how trivial or silly, will ever be completely erased, we find it hard to take the risks that togetherness entails.

Really? Suppose I said my trivial and silly thing on Friendfeed. Everything that was ever posted to Friendfeed disappeared three days ago:

You will be able to view your posts, messages, and photos until April 9th. On April 9th, we’ll be shutting down FriendFeed and it will no longer be available.

What if I shared on Posterous? Or Vox (back when that domain name was a social network hosting 6 million URLs)? What about Pownce? Geocities?

These aren’t the exceptions—this is routine. And yet somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, we still keep a completely straight face and say “Be careful what you post online; it’ll be there forever!”

The problem here is a mismatch of expectations. We expect everything that we post online, no matter how trivial or silly, to remain forever. When instead it is callously destroyed, our expectation—which was fed by the “knowledge” that the internet never forgets—is turned upside down. That’s where the anger comes from; the mismatch between expected behaviour and the reality of this digital dark age.

Being frightened of an internet that never forgets is like being frightened of zombies or vampires. These things do indeed sound frightening, and there’s something within us that readily responds to them, but they bear no resemblance to reality.

If you want to imagine a truly frightening scenario, imagine an entire world in which people entrust their thoughts, their work, and pictures of their family to online services in the mistaken belief that the internet never forgets. Imagine the devastation when all of those trivial, silly, precious moments are wiped out. For some reason we have a hard time imagining that dystopia even though it has already played out time and time again.

I am far more frightened by an internet that never remembers than I am by an internet that never forgets.

And worst of all, by propagating the myth that the internet never forgets, we are encouraging people to focus in exactly the wrong area. Nobody worries about preserving what they put online. Why should they? They’re constantly being told that it will be there forever. The result is that their history is taken from them:

If we lose the past, we will live in an Orwellian world of the perpetual present, where anybody that controls what’s currently being put out there will be able to say what is true and what is not. This is a dreadful world. We don’t want to live in this world.

Brewster Kahle

Have you published a response to this? :

Responses

npd

An excellent reminder that “the Internet never forgets” is wrong, misleading and harmful. I think the problem is that we’re in a constant state of limbo: we can’t have the confidence (that we typically take for granted with casual conversation) that statements will be forgotten and be experimental without fear, because sometimes the Internet will latch on and reproduce our follies. But simultaneously, we can’t have the confidence that our online history will be maintained and our creative work remembered forever. Sadly, we’ve constructed the worst of both imaginary worlds. I think we should build technology such that we can maintain history and so that we can have control over our statements and be able to remove and revise them; only rarely are these in conflict, both are cases of improving user control.

# Posted by npd on Sunday, April 12th, 2015 at 10:52pm

Jeremy Keith

RT @jgarber: “I am far more frightened by an internet that never remembers than I am by an internet that never forgets.” @adactio adactio.com/journal/8710

Ronaldo Patrocinio

RT @jgarber: “I am far more frightened by an internet that never remembers than I am by an internet that never forgets.” @adactio adactio.com/journal/8710

Shidhin

RT @jgarber: “I am far more frightened by an internet that never remembers than I am by an internet that never forgets.” @adactio adactio.com/journal/8710

# Posted by Shidhin on Monday, April 13th, 2015 at 7:35am

Elizabeth Sarobhasa

RT @jgarber: “I am far more frightened by an internet that never remembers than I am by an internet that never forgets.” @adactio adactio.com/journal/8710

Shane Hudson

RT @jgarber: “I am far more frightened by an internet that never remembers than I am by an internet that never forgets.” @adactio adactio.com/journal/8710

Michael Hastrich

RT @jgarber: “I am far more frightened by an internet that never remembers than I am by an internet that never forgets.” @adactio adactio.com/journal/8710

James Frost

RT @jgarber: “I am far more frightened by an internet that never remembers than I am by an internet that never forgets.” @adactio adactio.com/journal/8710

Mark Cossey

RT @jgarber: “I am far more frightened by an internet that never remembers than I am by an internet that never forgets.” @adactio adactio.com/journal/8710

Gideon MW Jones

RT @jgarber: “I am far more frightened by an internet that never remembers than I am by an internet that never forgets.” @adactio adactio.com/journal/8710

Lawrence Meckan

RT @jgarber: “I am far more frightened by an internet that never remembers than I am by an internet that never forgets.” @adactio adactio.com/journal/8710

@jgarber @adactio Perhaps the phrase should go “the Internet never forgets the things you wish it would.”

# Posted by on Monday, April 13th, 2015 at 8:27am

James Bell

RT @jgarber: “I am far more frightened by an internet that never remembers than I am by an internet that never forgets.” @adactio adactio.com/journal/8710

# Posted by James Bell on Monday, April 13th, 2015 at 4:04pm

Michael Zajac

RT @jgarber: “I am far more frightened by an internet that never remembers than I am by an internet that never forgets.” @adactio adactio.com/journal/8710

Alex

RT @jgarber: “I am far more frightened by an internet that never remembers than I am by an internet that never forgets.” @adactio adactio.com/journal/8710

# Posted by Alex on Monday, April 13th, 2015 at 4:15pm

elwin schmitz

RT @jgarber: “I am far more frightened by an internet that never remembers than I am by an internet that never forgets.” @adactio adactio.com/journal/8710

Christof

RT @jgarber: “I am far more frightened by an internet that never remembers than I am by an internet that never forgets.” @adactio adactio.com/journal/8710

# Posted by Christof on Monday, April 13th, 2015 at 6:16pm

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