Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The internet always remembers?

Does the internet really remember everything? Do we need to teach computers how to forget?

I wonder if it won't just happen "naturally", like by attrition.

I imagine that sooner or later, irrelevant information will be pushed to the bottom of the pile (or search list) and then eventually be "forgotten", if not completely erased. Google already does this to a certain extent, arranging search results by relevance, estimated by factors like how many other sites link to the information and so on.

If a piece of information exists on a computer connected to the internet, but no website links to it, will anyone ever recover that obscure information? And what about when computers disconnect from the internet? Unless their data are cached somewhere (which, admittedly, Google and others do on a large scale), that information is no longer accessible. Also, over time, as formats and computer languages change, much more information will become inaccessible without translation.

Maybe it's just the same as with current information in "legacy" formats: there's a lot of it that exists, but which we are completely unaware of—like in dusty old tomes in libraries that we would have to spend hours or years searching for because it's not indexed. Still it's there.

I understand the ideal of going "off the grid", and avoiding trails of data that can tell others about one's daily habits or personal life. At its simplest, it means I can just go somewhere and no one will know where I am, or I can do something, and no one will know what I'm doing. Without such protection, we end up in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, never sure if someone is watching, always afraid to act.

It's not about living by the law or not. I'm sure that for many law-abiding citizens, once they believe that someone is watching their every move, they will reconsider some or many of their actions; they will become unnatural, separate from their desires, alienated from their selves.

Of course, time won't help if someone wants to remove some damning information from the internet right away. Facial recognition certainly won't make it any easier. It's almost enough to make me want to give up on Facebook. Sometimes I don't want to worry about someone seeing my photos or personal information (despite security measures).

I do believe that, in time, much digital information will be lost, in the ways I've mentioned and others. As disasters and time have destroyed copious past knowledge, so they will do to current and future knowledge. Most people probably have little to worry about when it comes to their personal information. That is, besides marketers, identity thieves, and future historians and archeologists, few people care about the average person's information. And for the time being, going off the grid can be as simple as leaving the house without your phone and wallet, and paying for things with cash.

We make much of our dependence on technology, and surely much of the talk is true. Perhaps fewer people each year could survive "in the wild"; and the idea doesn't interest them. Can we say that these people are worse off than others? Is it as dangerous as some say to trade our privacy for convenience? Is it harmful to trust technology with our secrets, some of which we would never even tell other people?

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The New Dilettantes by Adam Gorley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.