The art of forgetting in the age of ubiquitous computing

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger
As humans, we are regularly flummoxed by what we have forgotten — the name of someone we’ve just run into at a show, the location of the all-important corkscrew or bottle opener, one of our many passwords. What we remember is, for most of us, less of a problem. But now a public-policy expert warns that computers, by default, remember way too much — and perhaps should be trained to forget things the same way we do.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (blog), an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, says in a “working paper” that the seemingly endless expansion of computers’ storage capacity means that more and more elements of our lives are being recorded, and more and more of the recordings are being saved. This “will profoundly influence how we view our world, and how we behave in it,” he writes. “If what we do can be held against us years later, if all our impulsive comments are preserved,” he says, the “lack of forgetting” could lead us to “speak less freely and openly.”

The solution? Mr. Mayer-Schönberger proposes “that we shift the default when storing personal information back to where it has been for millennia, from remembering forever to forgetting over time.” Laws, he argues, should require various kinds of software to forget information after some period — days or weeks for surveillance cameras, for instance, maybe years for Amazon’s records of our book purchases. Users could change the expiration dates of information they want to preserve, he says, but otherwise forgetting would once again be the norm.

(via The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Register)

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