“A Machinery of Grace” – Teaching Computers to Forget

In the past, recording and remembering information has always been very costly, both in terms of time and financial resources. Today, the opposite is true. Now it is more expensive to forget than it is to remember. This is true at least when you compare time and effort to financial cost. Consider the last time you uploaded photos from your digital camera to your computer. Did you take the 3 seconds necessary to delete every bad photo? If not, you are pretty normal–its cheaper to save every photo. Our tendency to hoard bad photos is a perfect example for demonstrating the way it has become more economical in today’s digital society to save everything, instead of filtering out the useless or outdated.

This example is fairly trivial compared to the way governments don’t allow people entry into their country because of decades old mistakes, or the unfortunate souls who lose jobs over an old Facebook picture or blog post. Of course, these problems are the exception rather than the rule, but we are all becoming more familiar with the fact that digital memory is permanent (see my post “Social Media’s Golden Rule“). For this reason, Victor Mayer-Schonberger argues in his book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting In the Digital Age, that all information we save to Internet databases should come with the option to add an expiry date.

This was a novel idea for me, but one that sparks several thinking points:

  1. First, its worth considering how different digital memory is from the way human memory functions. Our brains are not like computers at all: “Take the visual sense as an example. The average human eye captures a high resolution image—the equivalent of one taken by a 15-megapixel digital camera—many dozens of times every second. With 50,000 seconds in the conscious hours of every day, even a very large storage system would quickly fill up. And if we add in humans’ other five senses, the total amount of incoming information would be much higher still” (p. 17). Unlike computers, we have to filter the majority of what our brains take in–and only a very small portion ever makes it into long term storage.
  2. Second, this book made me question the normal assumption that digital memory is superior to human memory. There are several reasons why forgetting is actually quite helpful for human life. We typically only remember that which is most important, but digital memory makes no distinction between trivial or important. Humans have always understood, at least implicitly “that good information is preferable to copious information” (p. 173). As Malcolm Gladwell says in Blink: “The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately needing the latter.”
  3. Third, since remembering has become the new default, human behavior is likely to be affected as a result.  Knowing that everything you do, say, or type could be enshrined on the Internet can cause you to filter how you act. I’m not sure where it originated, but the term for this is called “the chilling effect” (p. 5, 12).  Its like the “observer effect” on a global scale.
  4. Fourth, all of this leads to an interesting conclusion regarding how digital tools like text messaging or social media are used. Have you ever noticed that social media usually has nothing to do with the past or the future? When used for social purposes, digital tools  are primarily concerned with the present: the best example being food porn–the Instagram trend to take a picture of the meal I’m eating right now. Thank God we can permanently record that for antiquity!
  5.  Finally, the emphasis on the present sucks the context out of digital information. Mayer-Schonberger calls this bricolage, which refers to the mixing and (re)combining of multiple sources–the de-  and re-contextualization of information. On the Internet, its true that “with enough time and effort … one often could track retrieved results back to the information source, and thus experience them in the original context. It’s like finding a passage in a book using the index—a person might not grasp the full context by reading just a sentence or a page, but if sufficiently important, they can then read the chapter or even the entire book. With digital bricolages this is no longer possible, since the information pieces that make up the bricolage are severed from their original context, without a way to trace them back. If a photo is used in a slideshow, a sentence taken from somebody’s novel, or a few notes of music plucked from a song, in a digital bricolage we have no reference to find the song, in a digital bricolage we have no reference to find the ‘original,’ and thus the context in which the photo was originally taken, the sentence written, or the musical notes composed and played. If nothing else, this heightens the danger of misinterpretation…the fact is that in the digital age, our capacity as individuals to control information is vastly reduced” (p. 90).

Anyway, I know this is a lot of food for thought, but the main thing I will take away is that even when humans have tools which remember perfectly, nothing can compensate for our fallen nature. As another review of this book points out: “What Mayer-Schönberger comes close to, with his language about ‘forgiveness’ and ‘second chances,’ is an almost theological point. What humans, so changeable and so error-prone, truly need is a machinery that works with human weakness. Call it a machinery of grace.”

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