Forgetting by Design

I get a lot of email forwards…don’t we all? And just the other day I got one that I have seen many times already over the past few years… Usually, you look, you smirk, you move on. But this time, the photo got me thinking: that poor kid — he has no memory of this shot, but he will be remembered for it for the rest of his life! The shot has long ago slipped from the close circle of sharing that his parents intended it for and has been widely distributed through out the world. Someday, this kid might even get it as mail forward himself: an adult man looking at a silly embarrassing moment that got away…
Why Mothers Scream email forward

Information with Expiration Date

Somehow, I don’t imagine that getting “an image that got away” of oneself would be a source of continuous pleasure. One might want to forget the whole thing… And it is not just images — although having images with expiration dates would be very valuable — there are loads of information that should be forgotten by design.

When my generation was growing up, the silly and stupid things we did didn’t end up as data for public consumption for the rest of our lives. No one is able to search our “records” as teenagers to find badly considered plans or ideas that went badly. No one is able to find our embarrassing moments during a junior prom on Facebook. Our pain, embarrassment, and incredible stupidity faded back gracefully into history (for the most part). People of my generation got a second chance to reinvent themselves.

To forgive and move on, we need to be able to forget. But the Internet as conceived now makes this very difficult to do. Every stupid prank is right there for sharing with the world forever. How will this affect future relationships? Or job prospect? Or even credit? And god forbid if a kid ever has a run-in with the law — that black mark will forever stain the reputation, no matter how saintly before or after…

We have to start thinking about designing data and content to be forgotten after a certain period of time. And we can’t rely on some services (like Facebook) to do that for us. The expiration date needs to be built into the data itself.

  4 comments for “Forgetting by Design

  1. February 28, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    There’s been a lot of chat recently about mommy bloggers and what they owe their children in terms of privacy. For the kids of the big names, it’s not just one picture but hundreds with anecdotes and details, all associated to their actual names. There’s no way that Leta Armstrong, for example, will ever gain google control back over her name unless she too becomes a big name blogger and I’m not sure how we should fix that. I don’t think we should destroy information, but I don’t know how we can give privacy without destruction.

  2. February 28, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    I’m not advocating for distraction of information, just expiration of public information. Individuals can preserve as much as they would like in private. I’m uncomfortable with the loss of control over one’s life that loss of control over information about oneself brings. I also think it’s unacceptable for employees to ask for private information (e.g. Facebook passwords, etc.). As a society, we used to have more privacy. It is even more worrisome to me that this privacy is lost by those who don’t have any say in the matter. By law, we hide names and “destroy” police records of underage kids. But the media coverage generated by parents, friends, family, school, and kids themselves doesn’t go away. Thank you for commenting!

  3. March 1, 2013 at 9:06 am

    Oh I’m definitely not advocating for employers to have access to our private information or to make private information public. I just think there’s this tension between privacy and knowledge that’s particularly difficult for us to navigate right now. For example, where do we cut the line between the documentation/history of the phenomenon of mommy blogging and the rights of their children?

    I think there’s also issues of class and power here as well. I’m not exactly sure how to explain it but I think it’s notable that there is so much discussion of privacy now from here to CNN now that it affects and is about “us” without questioning other violations, like say, Anne Frank’s diary or the girl napalmed in Vietnam or gang violence. I have way too many thoughts floating around and I’m not sure how I feel about it, but I think the news/history vs. privacy issue is one we have to really consider and for everyone, not just for those who are lucky enough to have the types of jobs where they have to fear the google cache.

  4. March 1, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    It’s not just the mommy blogging that I worry about. What happens when an underage kid does something illegal? While we have laws against revealing information about offenses by minors, it doesn’t stop friends from posting stories on Facebook or the media picking up a story and half-heartedly obfuscating identifying information. One stupid act or mistake changes the course of the kid’s life forever. There are no longer “do overs” — as a society we no longer know how to forget and so we can’t forgive.

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