Tags: memory

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sparkline

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

That was my jam

Those lovely people at the jam factory have reprised their Jam Odyssey for 2013—this time it’s an underwater dive …through jam.

Looking back through my jams, I thought that they made for nice little snapshots of the year.

  1. : Meat Abstract by Therapy? …because apparently I had a dream about Therapy?
  2. : Jubilee Street by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds …because I had just been to the gig/rehearsal that Jessica earned us tickets to. That evening was definitely a musical highlight of the year.
  3. : Atlanta Lie Low by Robert Forster …because I was in Atlanta for An Event Apart.
  4. : Larsen B by British Sea Power …because I had just seen them play a gig (on their Brighton home turf) and this was the song they left us with.
  5. : Tramp The Dirt Down by Elvis Costello …because it was either this or Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead! (or maybe Margaret In A Guillotine). I had previously “jammed” it in August 2012, saying “Elvis Costello (Davy Spillane, Donal Lunny, and Steve Wickham) in 1989. Still waiting.”
  6. : It’s A Shame About Ray by The Lemonheads …because Ray Harryhausen died.
  7. : Summertime In England by Van Morrison …because it was a glorious Summer’s day and this was playing on the stereo in the coffee shop I popped into for my morning flat white.
  8. : Spaceteam by 100 Robots …because Jim borrowed my space helmet for the video.
  9. : Higgs Boson Blues by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds …because this was stuck in my head the whole time I was at hacking at CERN (most definitely a highlight of 2013).
  10. : Hey, Manhattan by Prefab Sprout …because I was in New York.
  11. : Pulsar by Vangelis …because I was writing about Jocelyn Bell Burnell.
  12. : Romeo Had Juliette by Lou Reed …because Lou Reed died, and also: this song is pure poetry.

I like This Is My Jam. On the one hand, it’s a low-maintenance little snippet of what’s happening right now. On the other hand, it makes for a lovely collage over time.

Or, as Matt put it back in 2010:

We’ve all been so distracted by The Now that we’ve hardly noticed the beautiful comet tails of personal history trailing in our wake.

Without deliberate planning, we have created amazing new tools for remembering. The real-time web might just be the most elaborate and widely-adopted architecture for self-archival ever created.

The forgotten house

The Never Forgotten House is a beautifully-written piece with a central premise that is utterly, utterly flawed. Once again the truism that “the internet never forgets” is presented as though it needed no verification.

Someday soon, the internet will fulfill its promise as a time machine. It will provide images for every space and moment so we can fact check our memories. Flickr and Facebook albums will only accumulate.

Citation needed. Badly.

Read the article. Enjoy it. But question its unquestioningness. It made me sad for exactly the opposite reasons that the author intended.

Every essential moment of a child’s life is documented if he was born in the West. With digital album after album for every birthday, every Christmas, he will never struggle to remember what his childhood home looked like.

I wish that were true.