Social media philosophy blog
Monday June 26th 2017

As time goes by

It is probably not possible to find two analysis of the digital challenges of today so different than the books “Total Recall” (by Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell, 2009) and “Delete: the virtue of forgetting in the digital age” (by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, 2009). The book “Total Recall” supplies us with an utopian vision of the world where we never forget anything. Building on the already cyborg like existence of Internet pioneer Gordon Bell we are introduced to a hands on renegotiation of what it means to be human. Everything and anything is recorded into the electronic memory of the individual with easy access to all the experiences ever made. In this way, we can process everything we ever said to any acquaintance. We can produce statistics on when we have been sad or in love. For heavens sake, we can produce graphs on the development and intensity of all our intimate relationships.

For my own part, I am sadly reminded by the analysis by Theodore Roszak (“Where the wasteland ends”, 1973) where human kind is seen to be increasingly disgusted with her own physical body, privileging the artificial over nature.

“So it becomes our desperate project to program this slag heap of data points into the computers. The machines will know it all! The idea that culture is an adventure of the human spirit, to be carried on in a Fellowship for the good of our souls, vanishes from sight. “Thinking Machines” (or at least “memory tapes”) which merely counterfeit the formal surface of a real idea (but never feel its depth or rich ambiguity, never sense its personal resonance) become the electric stitchery of a cultural crazyquilt. And the Thinking Machines, of course, will be owned, programmed, and employed by the technocracy. They will not be our servants” (page 158).

Mayer-Schönberger has found little need to envision the future in order to sketch an image of a nightmarish society where humans become trapped by technology systems that disallow forgetting. We used to have a society where remembering was a problem. But now, gigabytes are cheap. “The truth is that the economics of storage have made forgetting brutally expensive” (page 68). As information is slippery, personal information is easily copied to a great number of places. At the same time, information is now searched and retrieved on a number of different levels, often allowing crawling beyond the meta-data. As the electronic memory is allowed to become an extension of the human memory, something important happens. The human memory is a fundamental part of our humanity. Forgetting is not only human, it is part of our remembering. We view the world through our filters and we cast away information in order to find an identity and a way of understanding the world. Digital technologies will not, even if we are cyborgs, register a number of the most important contexts of the moments of our lives.

As Mayer-Schönberger points out, much of our communication is poorly suited as a message to the future about the present. They are simply messages about the present, saying, “this is where I am and what I do”.

Can we be allowed to live like that?

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