Digital Developments: Remembering to forget in the age of Google

[In this column, we talk about the topic of an ever-remembering web and some of the challenges we all – being individuals, organizations, or companies – are confronted with in the face of that.]

We all know the feeling: waking up to a mental state of confusion, shame and dislocation of us, parts of our belongings and what is left of one’s dignity. As great as it would be to have all available information about the evening usually preceding such an awakening, in THAT flat on THAT day, do we really want to be able to find it there for all eternity and for all to see?

Previously, I hit on the notion that there has been a rising professionalization in the use of digital technologies, which is a good thing considering that they are becoming more and more translucent and ‘caring’ (in the social media sense of the word) due to the interconnectedness of websites, programs and sets of data. Looking at that argument though, it might be appropriate to extrapolate. Seeing how much our media behaviour has changed in the last five years, are we able to predict how much life in the digital sphere will have changed by 2050 (a lot, most likely) and do we really want to be able to find pictures of our trousers that night in 2011 when we are grey and cybernetic? Assuming we have become more relaxed through age, we probably won’t mind and that is exactly the point.

Right now, we are dealing with around seven years of widespread use of social media, (true digital media geeks may add a couple of years), but in historic perspective that isn’t much of a blip on the radar. However , we already are facing a number of challenges connected to the vast amounts of data available now, so what is going to happen when our grandkids are starting to research us on Facebinstagrest? (Apart from that beautiful feeling of humiliation, of course.)

Looking at processes such as the integration of timeline into Facebook, more and more opportunities to share information across platforms and the ability to save data in cloud-based environments, we are generating huge amounts of data with no visible trend towards less. (Some trends of a re-nationalization of the internet are becoming visible though and net-neutrality is under constant threat, but these are points to be made another time.) Setting aside arguments against concerns of privacy, it is impressive how much of the data we send through the fiberglass everyday is actually searchable by others with access to our profiles.! And who are we to judge the intentions of those vis-à-vis time? Sure, future data archaeologists will be happy, but will we?

According to Eric Schmidt (in 2009) we simply should not do things that might be embarrassing to us later, but who defines embarrassing? And who are we to judge which things will be embarrassing and/or important to us in the future? Depending on different kinds of data/information, we might want to have different time-scopes with which we curate our profiles, both as individuals and as organizations/companies, or show different sets of information to different people on the same platform using these different scopes. The core-question here is, whether we can translate our demands on changing sets of available data configurations into self-made software or user-power/-pressure towards our most beloved providers. How free can/will we be to choose what information we put online and for whom?

Looking at these processes from a point of view of culture and identity, one of the crucial developments to be witnessed will be the development of coping-mechanisms with the overflow of information coming at us every second of every day. How will especially younger generations deal with them, how will this new kind of information-literacy look like and how can we, as organizations/agents/institutions, help?

Coming back to our favourite topic (ourselves), we can now take a look at the effect that what we just described has on everyday practice: imagining there will be no mechanism in place to automatically delete datasets of a certain age, how can we deal with all that available information about us? There are good reasons to actually want to have a universal CTRL+F for everything (with an opt out/in option, though let’s not get too practical here) but then again, should we really care about the things that are still available in the timeline from way back when, just because future employers can theoretically see what was posted a long time ago? And should they care?

Take an example from the daily life of an NGO: How justified is it to judge an NGO applying for a project grant related to European citizenship on the basis of an ill-perceived local dance-workshop six years ago?

What we see here staring at us is something very unsettling and very practical at the same time: the ability to remember everything all the time and we cannot unlearn that information. Maybe we can, but then we restart the computer and there it is. I forgot to remember to forget, as Elvis sang more than 50 years ago. Looking at the bigger picture, we will have to work on this, figuring out whether to develop culture-based coping-mechanisms, scratch-build a technical solution, or do we actually dare to ‘let history take its course’? On a more practical level, we may not have answers or ideas or even a hunch, but there are a couple of questions that everyone, every organization and every company can think about and answer right now:

  • How much data do you have online?
  • Do you curate your online appearance?
  • Do you emphasize or subdue certain projects?
  • Why?

We’re living in the future and none of this has happened yet. – Bruce Springsteen

The European Court of Justice’s recent decision on a right to be forgotten is one step towards awareness of this issue, but the implications and practicability of the decision remain to be seen at this point in time.

  • by Moritz Borchardt

[This article was first written for and published at No Label Project under has since been updated and reworked for publication at the Global Public Policy Watch, Picture credit: Catherine Cronin]

One response to “Digital Developments: Remembering to forget in the age of Google

  1. Pingback: Digital Developments: First Workshop conducted in Erfurt | Global Public Policy Watch·

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