Permanent Markers: Memory And Forgiveness
I thought it prudent to write something about Jeffrey Rosen’s Sunday NY Times essay, The Web Means The End Of Forgetting, before it slipped into the past and we’d all forgotten about it. Scott Rosenberg was disappointed in Rosen’s essay and wrote about how it didn’t live up to the large themes it outlined. The essence of Rosen’s piece is that the public information we publish to the web through social network systems like Facebook are permanent markers that may come back to haunt us in unanticipated contexts. Rosenberg’s critique seems to be that there’s not too much evidence of this happening, and that a greater concern is link rot, preservation of the ephemera of the web and general digital preservation.
Of course, there’s a sense in which we seem to have very poor memories indeed. Our universities feature a discipline called archeology in which we dig up our ancestors with the purpose of trying to figure who they were, what they did and how they lived. We lack the ability to simply rewind and replay the ancient past. As each day advances, another slips into time out of mind— or time immemorial as it’s sometimes called.
We use the metaphors memory and forgetting when talking about what computer systems do when they store and retrieve bits from a file system. The human activity of memory and forgetting actually has very little in common with a computer’s storage and retrieval routines. When we say that the Web doesn’t forget, what we mean is that if something is stored in a database, unless there’s a technical problem, it can be retrieved through some kind of search query. If the general public has access to that data store, then information you’ve published will be available to any interested party. It’s not a matter of human remembering or forgetting, but rather one of discovery and random access through querying a system’s indexed data.
At issue in Rosen’s piece, isn’t the fact of personal data retrieved through a search query, but rather the exposure of personal transgressions. Lines that were crossed in the past, behavior from one context made inappropriate by placing it into a new context, some departure from the Puritan norm detected and added into a summary valuation of a person. Rosen even describes this mark as a “scarlet letter in your digital past.” The technical solutions he explores have to do with changing the data or the context of the data to prevent retrieval: the stains of data are scrubbed and removed from relevant databases; additional data is piled in to divert attention from the offending bits; or an expiration policy is enforced on bits that make them unreadable after a set period of time. There’s an idea that at some future point you will own all your personal data (that you’ve published into publicly networked systems) and will have granular access controls over it.
Absent a future of totalitarian personal data control, Rosen moves on to the act of forgiveness. Can we forgive each other in the presence of permanent reminders? I wrote a post about this on the day that MSNBC replayed the events of morning of September 11, 2001. Sometimes we can rewind the past and press play, but wounds cannot heal if we’re constantly picking at them.
While we’re enraptured by the metaphors of memory and forgetting, intelligence and thinking, as we talk about computers, when we speak of forgiveness we tamp down the overtones and resonance of the metaphor. It’s in the cultural practice of western religion that we have the mechanisms for redemption, forgiveness, indulgences and absolution. In the secular rational context of computerized networks of data there’s no basis for forgiveness. It’s all ones or zeros, it’s in the database or it’s not.
Perhaps in our digital secular world we need a system similar to carbon offsets. When we’ve sinned against the environment by virtue of the size of our carbon footprint, we purchase indulgences from TerraPass to offset our trespass. Rather than delete, obscure or divert attention from the bits in question, we might simply offset them with some act of kindness. While the Catholic Church frowns on the idea of online confession, in this model, there would be no person listening to your confession and assigning penance. The service would simply authenticate your good deeds and make sure they were visible as a permanent marker on the Network. It would be up to you to determine the size of the offset, or perhaps you could select from a set of standard offset sizes.
The problem that Rosen describes is not one of technology, but rather one of humanity and human judgment. The question of how we treat each other is fundamental and has been with us since the beginning.