Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What it Means to Forget in the Internet Age

The New York Times has a thoughtful and comprehensive recent article by Jeffrey Rosen, The Web Means the End of Forgetting. With the shifting of more and more aspects of our lives online to sites like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc. (and blogs, of course... *ahem*) comes the realization that we ultimately have less and less control over our permanent social records. Even though an individual has a large amount of control of what information she publishes about herself -- I could choose to just cancel this post right now and kill it in utero -- once something is out there it becomes more and more difficult to take it back. If I choose to publish this post, it will be publicly accessible, free to be copied and quoted and referenced. Even if I delete it in the future, there will still be a copy somewhere in Google's archives. (Let's leave aside for the moment the problem of what other people publish about you, shall we?)

So is the internet's long memory a bane? There are some who have embraced this new zeitgeist: Microsoft, I believe, has a concept in development that would automatically record and archive what you see, what you hear, your conversations, your writing, essentially your entire life, automatically and continuously. And Rosen comments towards the end of his article about what it would mean to culturally shift (back, actually) to a holistic public persona. But most of us aren't there yet, and so more people are looking into ways to limit what the internet can remember by building in -- or adding on -- mechanisms of "forgetting."
Google not long ago decided to render all search queries anonymous after nine months (by deleting part of each Internet protocol address), and the upstart search engine Cuil has announced that it won’t keep any personally identifiable information at all, a privacy feature that distinguishes it from Google. And there are already small-scale privacy apps that offer disappearing data. An app called TigerText allows text-message senders to set a time limit from one minute to 30 days after which the text disappears from the company’s servers on which it is stored and therefore from the senders’ and recipients’ phones. (The founder of TigerText, Jeffrey Evans, has said he chose the name before the scandal involving Tiger Woods’s supposed texts to a mistress.)

Expiration dates could be implemented more broadly in various ways. Researchers at the University of Washington, for example, are developing a technology called Vanish that makes electronic data “self-destruct” after a specified period of time. Instead of relying on Google, Facebook or Hotmail to delete the data that is stored “in the cloud” — in other words, on their distributed servers — Vanish encrypts the data and then “shatters” the encryption key. To read the data, your computer has to put the pieces of the key back together, but they “erode” or “rust” as time passes, and after a certain point the document can no longer be read.
If you're reading this, you may know a thing or two about how forgetting works in humans, and you may be familiar with this idea of degradation over time. It's one theory, though not necessarily the most likely. Much work in the Bjork lab and elsewhere has supported the contending theory of interference as a principle driver of forgetting -- the passage of time tends to reduce the memorability of an event not due to some direct effect of time itself (as in apps like TigerText), but because subsequent experiences intrude.

This then leads to the idea of adaptive forgetting, that forgetting is a necessary mechanism for separating information and experiences into "important" and "unimportant," and ultimately for drawing conclusions and making more oblique connections -- an idea I've been exploring in my own research*. When something is experienced or learned, memorability is determined by the processing of the information at the time. But once established, memories can be altered. For example, if you haven't thought about something in a while but then suddenly find yourself searching for that information weeks or months (or years) down the line, what you are able to recall will come to mind much faster the next time; this information has become more of a prominent fixture in your mind. Likewise, the more often some information needs to be accessed, the more prominent it will become -- if it has passed out of consciousness in the interstices. Contrariwise, any information that is infrequently accessed, or only accessed in a short timeframe, will be easily forgotten, or less prominent in one's mind.

So am I arguing that attempts to create online forgetting systems should more closely resemble humans'? On the contrary, that's how it already works. Search engines, for instance, rely on the most visited and most heavily linked sites to determine page rankings. You could view the unique links and pageviews as analogous to memory queries in the human mind: the more successful "retrievals" -- people finding what they're looking for -- the more prominent the "memory" -- the particular information. That particular aspect of you is so highly viewed because people think it's the most important. If a search comes up empty, however, or if the information is buried so deeply in Google's o's that you're unlikely to uncover it, it remains unmoved.

And what about pernicious, stubborn information that refuses to go away -- a politician's affair or a workplace incident? Organizations like ReputationDefender promise to help you out by essentially laying out a net of interference, ranking up the positive information about you and ranking down the negatives. This is actually similar to some efforts to treat the persistent memories associated with PTSD.

This analogy hasn't been all that well thought-out, so I don't want to place too much weight on it. I've intended mostly to point out that discussions of "memory" and "forgetting" on the internet and attempts to address it could, and perhaps should, take very different forms. Forgetting is not the absence of information.

Finally, just a shout-out to some other psychology studies of note in the article:
  • Browsing the web with an attentive human-like avatar leads people to less self-disclosure, compared to no avatar or an avatar that isn't paying attention.
  • A recent study published in Psych Science (Back et al., 2010) shows that people's social networking profiles tend to be accurate reflections of their personalities.

* Rosen mentions a literary perspective on what it means to be unable to forget:
Jorge Luis Borges, in his short story “Funes, the Memorious,” describes a young man who, as a result of a riding accident, has lost his ability to forget. Funes has a tremendous memory, but he is so lost in the details of everything he knows that he is unable to convert the information into knowledge and unable, as a result, to grow in wisdom
There are a few published cases of individuals with this problem, but I'd love to read Borges' take on it.