Sunday, May 12, 2013

Internet steals the chance to forget our past failures

The BIG idea

Bad rap: Forgetfulness.

Forgetting: A building block of knowledge.

Forgetting gets a bad rap, but it's a building block of knowledge. ''It is how we construct ourselves as human beings, rather than flagellating ourselves about things we've done,'' Viktor Mayer-Schonberger says.

He is a professor of internet governance at Oxford University's Internet Institute. In The Guardian recently he used the case of Jill Price of California to show we might think being unable to recall things is bad, but remembering everything would be much worse.

She suffers from hyperthymesia, a condition that stops her from forgetting anything that has ever happened in her life. Mayer-Schonberger argues we'll all be living like Price if everything about us stays accessible on internet databases and we've got no way to hit ''delete''.

Anyone who's winced at their diary entries from 15 years ago knows the brain reconstructs the past based on our present values, argues the professor. But digital memories remind us of past failures and take away our ability to forget or reconstruct the past.


To be able to abstract things - to ''see the forest and not the trees'' - we need to forget such details as are being writ large on social media minute by minute. ''If you have digital memories, you can only see the trees,'' says the Oxford don.

It's the stuff of a huge stoush in the European Union over a piece of legislation being dubbed ''the Right to Be Forgotten''. Punitive fines - up to 2 per cent of global turnover - are proposed for companies that refuse requests to erase customers' information. Also known as the General Data Protection Regulation, it is poised to either protect us from our past selves on the internet, or trample free speech and transform Google into censor-in-chief for the EU, depending on who you believe.

Whatever the outcome, it's likely we'll remember this era of the internet as one of extraordinary freedom and openness.

Further reading: /2013/apr/04/right-erasure-protects-freedom-forget-past /privacy-paradox/right-to-be-forgotten
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