21 Oct 2016

Forget forgetting

If it happened, it will be remembered and found again. The “right to forget” battle is lost. The next one is the “duty to forgive”.

Every year that passes confirms what we’ve collectively known for a long time now: the technologies we use are making everything permanent. It’s probably an artifact of Moore’s law which, despite nearing its end, makes storing data and processing data always cheaper.

Chances are you’ve already Googled your name. It’s even more likely that somebody else searched for it too, on search engines, but also on social networks. Your email address has been leaked several times in the last couple years and multiple hashes (or even clear versions) of old passwords are available online too. Your location history is also a couple clicks away.

Recently, another dump of Wikileaks revelations exposed private conversations. I have a lot of sympathy for Lessig’s ideas and I agree that we all deserve privacy. However, interestingly he used deserve rather than right to… maybe because he understands it’s too late. Our online tracks are every day deeper and there’s so much one can do to “erase” them. Europe’s fight over the “right to forget” is extremely weak on the technical front and does not take into account that content is increasingly discovered and circulated via (increasingly encrypted) social channels.

Not only deleting some of the accumulated data is more and more impractical, it will soon be literally impossible, as history is increasingly part of the algorithms themselves. Let’s take the example of the Block-chain. Each new state can only exist if it is the output of every single transaction that lead to it. In other words, we can’t forget the past if we want to build the present. Forgetting is no longer an option.

Once more, technology forces us to change our social norms. If we can’t forget, we must ask ourselves how we can live with history and knowing the previously hidden past of our neighbors, friends, dates and politicians.

The only solution I can come up with is empathy and forgiveness. We have to learn to put other people’s past in context. It does not mean that we have to accept or excuse their current behavior, but that judging past actions can only happen if we get a deep understanding of the context in which they happen.