This is a cautionary tale.
They1 say that when you’re about to die, your life flashes before your eyes – evoking some epic and profound transcendental realization. The proverb speaks to emotions that we attach to our memories – as something intensely poignant and deeply personal. In an age where a significant proportion of our lives are spent ‘plugged in’ to one or the other form of a social network, we have started, more than ever before, to record and publish our memories online. The spaces we live in actively encourage this trend and discourage restraint,2 using our memories as commodities in the information market,3 or as tools for social order.4a/4b Without noticing, and without regard for the consequences, we’ve resigned our memories to the open Internet, which means that they are often permanently retained and openly accessible.
It’s an innocuous idea at first – we contribute large chunks of our lives to our preferred social network, our rage to unmoderated comments’ sections and our cat’s quirkiest moments to websites5 on the internet, and they become perfect digital records – (usually) allowing almost anyone to view and share and use this information. A Google search or a Facebook timeline can reveal an almost complete digital record of your life, replete with embarrassingly drunk photos from college, or proclamations of love from relationships best left buried, eagerly published and committed to public memory, impossible to forget, and with an aura of authenticity which makes it impossible to deny. Location data, biometrics, home addresses, credit information, grocery lists, criminal records and vacation trips – are all being retained by different actors staking claim on your perfect, indexed and instantly accessible digital memories.6
However, while this digital memory clearly has its upsides – perfect information makes for better markets and makes it harder to be lied to – it also has tremendous implications for individuals and society, in particular for privacy and free speech. There are thousands of examples you can take – from the teacher who lost her job because of an photo of her drinking at a party; of released criminals losing any hope of rehabilitation because of publicly available criminal records; or the sinister ‘revenge porn’ videos which proliferate in the darker circles of the Internet – which only begin to touch the surface of why Randomly Accessible Memories may not be a great idea. An even bigger threat is that all the innocuous information we feed adds up, which allows for profiling, which then governs how society views and treats you.
Forgetting plays an important role in society. Our individual ability to get over the past, to recreate ourselves, to change roles that we have been shuffled into, depends upon our ability to forget and to move on. Perfect memory can mean a constant stream of past trauma or failures – the kind that trigger warnings can’t prevent. It also makes it difficult to escape from stigmatization that society may attach to behavior, which hurts our ability to rehabilitate. Correspondingly, control over personal data is instrumental in shaping relations in society – allowing us to create and maintain relationships in different degrees, according to the kind of information we provide. Your boss shouldn’t know your bed manners as well as your significant other; and your government shouldn’t know your political motivations as well as your online anarcho-environmentalist group on Facebook. But with the perfection of digital profiling, you are at once the same person to everyone.
There is a delicate balance to maintain between your ability to control your information and the public’s interest in accessing it. Battle lines on either side have already been drawn. In June, 2014, the European Union made effective the so-called ‘Right to be Forgotten’,7 directing Google to remove links upon the request of the information owner, which are irrelevant or not in public interest. Similar cases have been won in Japan, Argentina and elsewhere.8 In California, USA, minors have been granted the right by law to direct information controllers to expunge all information on them.9 The implementation has been far from perfect.10 However, it reflects an important change in our attitude towards privacy, and moves us to address the growing concern of finding the right balance between privacy and the right to information.
The transition to perfect memory is one taking place in front of our eyes. We need to step up to the challenge it presents. We need to demand more from the organisations that control our data, and reclaim personal control over the things we publish. We need to demand that some of the personal data we commit online comes with an expiry date. We need to be conscious about personal data not being as innocuous as it seems, and reflect this in the decisions we make online. Let’s reserve a space for perfect memory for our own profound, near-death experiences, where we can visit our memories in peace, without having them shoved down our throats.
Note: For those interested in exploring this further, do read Viktor Mayer Schonberger’s ‘Delete: The Virtues of Forgetting in the Digital Age’, and watch the episodes ‘The Entire History of You’ and ‘White Bear’ from the wonderfully dark BBC TV Series ‘Black Mirror’.
About the author :
Divij Joshi eats, sleeps and repeats at the National Law School in Bangalore, India. He enjoys free dinners, Quentin Tarantino films and sometimes blogs about Internet and the law at The Centre for Internet & Society.