Thou Shalt Never Forget

27 May , 2015  | by:

Disclaimer: Although the issue of memory in a digital society is a very cutting-edge topic, this report can be rather confusing for anyone who hasn’t been thinking about remembering and forgetting in the digital age for as long as I have, I apologize for that. For more insight on the ideas behind this workshop and the project run by the Research Center for Information Law (FIR-HSG) at the University of St.Gallen, Switzerland please take a look at our Wiki.

Last month, I organized and attended the concluding workshop for our (my professors’ and my) project called “Remembering and Forgetting in the Digital Age“. We invited renown scholars from all over the world who in one way or the other deal with memory in the digital age and we were very happy to host guests such Urs GasserViktor Mayer-SchönbergerMichael ArnoldWesley Shumar and many more.

The aim of the workshop was to have a discussion about remembering and forgetting in the digital age from the perspective of all sorts of different disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, mathematics, IT and computer sciences, sociology and so on. We tried to identify the pressure points in the digital society that influence how society remembers and forgets today. We discussed what technological changes brought on the shift from a world where it was easier and cheaper to forget to an era where forgetting comes at a high cost due to the abundance of information all around us.

On of the main goals of our project is to draft – what we call – a “Design Guide” which is intended to provide guidelines for legislators on how to best handle personally identifiable information in a legal framework. Therefore, we focused the identified pressure points and intervention mechanisms on what was most important for our Design Guide – for legislators to take into account when (re-)regulating information management. With that in mind, the most compelling pressure points in the digital age were the following:

  • The cultural dependency of remembering and forgetting: What is deemed important to remember in one culture may not be important in another or may even be offensive and vice versa. For example, the world may believe it’s important to remember what happened during World War II and Germany will adhere to that belief, but some cultures may also believe in forgiveness and decide that at some point in time what happened back then is terrible but should no longer be held against Germany… Who knows? For a further example see here.
  • The value of data: We need to determine how much personal data is really worth. At the moment, everyone is more or less readily giving out their data for free or more accurately to use services such as the ones Facebook or Google or Amazon provide us with but really our data could be worth much more than what we make it out to be.
  • The effect of remembering and forgetting in horizontal (individual-individual) and vertical (individual-state) relationships: This point stems from an economical perspective, looking at remembering and forgetting or information as a market where transactions are made. Sometimes information is transferred between two private entities, so there is a sort of level playing field (horizontal transaction) between the actors. Other times, information is transferred from an individual to the government due to its sovereign authority and power (vertical transaction). The goal of the market players will always be to create information scarcity – even in this age of abundant information – to retain competitive advantages over their competitors. But vertical and horizontal information transactions are based on very different preconditions which is why they should (maybe) be regulated differently.
  • The definition of who the trusted repositories for information should be: National archives, museums, memorials are all gatekeepers for what should be remembered in society. We discussed the fact that nowadays technology allows everyone to curate their own private archives, individuals, private entities, governments alike. Up until now, everything that was deemed to be of public interest and public value was archived in a governmentally run organization such as the Swiss Federal Archives. We discussed that the plurality of players in this information market may need to be regulated so to in one way or the other allow or even oblige private archives to make their information available to the public too. That is if information is deemed a public good and we accept that any past information whether it is public or not can be of public value.
  • The issue of self-censorship (Big Brother is watching you): If we are moving towards a society where everyone saves every piece of information about everything, then are we in danger of self-censorship? Will people increasingly control how they act, what information they share, with whom they talk, how they communicate? What are the implications of this information abundancy for the market players? This relates to Neil Richards’ latest book on “Intellectual Privacy“.
  • The balance of power and interests: Whoever has the most advanced technological knowledge will have the most power in the information market. But how do we balance the interests involved in remembering and forgetting? On the one hand, we have an individual’s right to privacy, data protection, and informational self-determination and on the other hand, we have the public interest in certain information due to the freedom of speech, freedom of information, national security and so on. We need to find a way or a mechanism to handle these interests and balance them on a case-by-case basis. Does this ring a bell? I’ll give you a hint: The Right to be Forgotten.
  • The authenticity of information vs. evolving/fractured identities: Information pieces found online and put together will never depict an authentic/complete picture of an individual. The data controller/processor dealing with this information, be it the government or a company, will always have a specific interest in specific details of an individual and this can lead to wrong perceptions of the individual in question. However, all of us use different platforms like Facebook, Amazon, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter etc. and we use those platforms in different ways and that’s what we like about these platforms. We can be a completely different person every time we switch from one platform to another or we can choose to present ourselves from different sides of our personality or we can completely re-invent ourselves… For example, we don’t want the people we are connected to on LinkedIn to have the same (amount of) information about us as our “friends” on Facebook. So in a way, we are creating these fractured identities of ourselves and serving them to companies and the government on a silver platter. The question is what do we want? Is there a need for these fractured identities? Or should the goal be to get one accurate picture of someone through the information available? And if that is the goal, how do we ensure that that identity evolves with us at the same pace we are constantly evolving in the “real” world?

As you can see, the workshop was very interesting and I think one of the main reasons we were able to get so many interesting inputs was due to the fact that we all came, looking at remembering and forgetting from completely different perspectives. I hope my little summary gave you some food for thought on the topic of privacy and/or memory in the digital age – it sure did for me. One question I’ve been thinking about a lot since the workshop is: If we are moving from an age of forgetting to an era of remembering and abundant information, do we need to “re-learn” how to forget in that we need to find new and better mechanisms to make sense of the information noise around us? I shall leave you with that…

You can find a more detailed summary of the workshop here.

And if you want to know even more about what we discussed and the ideas we bounced around check out the minutes from the workshop here.

Last but not least, we also have a summary of each participant’s thoughts on the topic here: “Working Papers: Different Perspectives on Remembering and Forgetting in the Digital Age


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