Skip to content →

Erasing the Trace: The Right to be Forgiven

The European Union says you have the right to be forgotten. The technologists say that by asking to be forgotten you bring more attention on yourself. They call this the Streisand effect. A movie star demanding privacy causes more attention by virtue of the demand. Alec Baldwin is a good example of this negative feedback loop. The more violently he fights for his privacy, the more interest the tabloid press has in the force involved in his effort. What could be better than a photograph of a celebrity trying to stop a paparazzi from taking his photograph?

Journalists, if that's still a thing that exists, believe they have the right to report on any digital trace of what could be perceived as bad behavior. They don't think you should have the right to decide what should be erased from your own record. This right could lead to criminals covering up a history of bad acts. It would also require journalists to leave their keyboards to do research.

Search engine companies and technologist believe that it's too expensive to filter out stuff you don't want as the top hit for your name. They believe the data is what the data is, and that you should just live with it. These are the same people that probably have been shaping and gaming their own search engine results pages for years. Too bad for you if you have something in your past that brands you forever. The new morality dictates that you ought to behave as though your worst moment will represent you to the world for the rest of your life. Google will tell anyone who asks about your most extreme behavior, and it'll be the first entry on the first page of their search engine results. What is it they say about “first impressions?”

But what about “evil” you say, isn't it mostly evil that asks to be forgotten? Isn't forgetting evil and its deeds an evil in and of itself? “Forgetting” allows evil to cloak itself and inflict itself on us in a neutral guise. No doubt this is why we use our Google Glass to check the backgrounds of all the passersby as we walk the streets of the city. The flaneur knows what you did last summer.

The machine would like you to know that it's nothing personal, just like when it reads your email. It's simply trying to make connections and offer the space for advertisers to offer coherent purchasing suggestions to you. When your name is entered into a search engine, it returns a slanderous screed by a troll assassinating your character. It's nothing personal, that's just the entry in the index that scored the highest based on an algorithm. The machine doesn't really understand the result in a human way, it's just the output of a process.

The thing about one piece data is that it's just like any other piece of data. No data needs to be forgotten or forgiven; it's just grist for the algorithm. The fact that humans make this or that of any particular piece of data is simply a factor that feeds into the algorithm's scoring process. The algorithm makes no moral judgements and no assessment of the truth value of its output.

Erasing a trace from a search engine's index would require from the machine a sense of morality and propriety. For all the talk about artificial intelligence, machines seem to be getting smart in a very limited way.


Published in culture desire difference identity network value