2017-04-27 Record Keeping

Remember Record Keeper, the Meatball Wiki page on people who keep records of our textual lives? Those who have records of our chat logs, email archives and social media posts have power over us. They take conversation more seriously than others. They prevent forgiving an forgetting. This started a discussion on Mastodon.

What I hate about social media sites is that all the data is kept but I can’t find anything I need. The admins, or new owners, however, can always comb through the data. Given that I can’t find shit, I’d be better off if old data got deleted. Delete inactive accounts after 90 days. Delete Toots after 90 days. Delete media after 30 days. Data is a liability. Make it easy for people to export threads (share a thread as HTML mail attachment, or save as HTML page for example).

Allowing me to download my own data is just part of the story. Luckily we can do that often enough: Google Takeout, Twitter Download, Facebook Download. But data is still a liability. If the bad guys take over, all your secrets are revealed, basically. Data is a liability because we cannot predict the future. And then there is the sheer scale of it. Once I realized that my GMail archive was more than 2G of mail, I decided to archive the file and delete the data on the servers because I don’t have the tools to work with the data offline. Better to delete it.

Now, this was relatively easy to do using a mail client and some free time. And yes, I can always go back and delete all the tweets, all the Facebook posts, all the Flickr photos, all the Instagram pics, but have you tried doing it? Deleting old stuff is a sad chore and nobody does it. Forgive and forget? You wish. The search engine indexes would forget, if only you’d delete, but you effectively can’t.

I was reminded of this talk by Maciej Cegłowski, Haunted By Data, where data is compared to nuclear waste. “In a world where everything is tracked and kept forever, like the world we’re for some reason building, you become hostage to the worst thing you’ve ever done.”

As you can see in the thread, some people claimed that I was making it easy for evidence to disappear, for nazis to hide, for white supremacists to hide. But I disagree. If the solution to old Nazis hiding somewhere is setting up the Stasi, I’m not sure we’re getting the best deal that we could. I’m not saying all records should be destroyed, videos should self destruct, newspapers should disappears, libraries should burn down, or archives be dissolved. No! I’m saying that Facebook and Twitter and G+ and Mastodon should make it easy (or: the default behaviour) to forget stuff. It’s not the same thing. Facebook posts and Tweets are not history, books, archives and newspapers.

Some people claimed that using social media is like printing pamphlets. You’ll never get them back. The information will stay out there, forever. And this is true, in a way. There is no protection from snoops and crooks. But this is not an all or nothing decision. The inability to create a perfect solution does not prevent us from making baby steps in the right direction, though. Some ISPs must keep meta data around. Secret services keep our data. And still, I can prefer an admin who doesn’t keep my data around. I can prefer the Mastodon implementation that forgets by default.

Let’s not forget: software is the way it is because that’s how we decided to implement it. Forgetting everything or forgetting nothing are two simple solutions for engineers. But we don’t have to do it that way. We could also implement it like printing on very cheap newspaper. These pamphlets will fall apart sooner or later and special efforts might be required to preserve them.

My wiki replaces all IP numbers in the log file with Anonymous after a while and it has an option to delete old page revisions after a while. Yes, somebody can still set up a feedreader and keep a copy of all the stuff. But I am not keeping a copy of the stuff. And if you’re a nice admin, perhaps you’re also trying to limit the stuff you keep. Data is a liability. We need to design software to minimise the footprint.

I think we need a general change in attitude. Software needs to be built such that it will allow us to forget.

And finally, now that we are living in a world where forgetting keeps getting harder: is that something you agree with? If David Duke deleted all his posts, and provided more clues to his white supremacist opinions, and we no longer remember them, is this not the sort of forgiving and forgetting that makes public life bearable? We can set up monuments to remind us of war crimes, or crimes against humanity, of tragedies and mistakes, but do we really need remember all the names, link them, trace them?

Is it not ridiculous when presidents have to claim on TV that they did not inhale when confronted with old pictures? I think the only alternative is something straight our of David Brin’s The Transparent Society. Since we can’t beat the snoops, we should join them and the ensuing balance of terror will keep us all quiet. If everybody posts pictures of the misdeeds as a teenager on Facebook then there is no reason to attack others for them. We will have made us vulnerable to the communities we live in. And perhaps this kind of trust and openness is something that will grow over time.

These days we accept kids doing stupid things and say to ourselves, we were kids once, we did stupid things too. Let’s not call the cops.

I don’t know. I think a society we have not learned to deal with this kind of openness. On the contrary. When people are released from prison, we accept them back into our midst and consider it unfortunate when they can’t find their way back into society. We want them to work and pay taxes, we want them to be good citizens again and we don’t want to remind them of their crimes whenever their name comes up.

As a society, in the non-digitised world, we have designed mechanisms to strike a balance between record keeping an forgetting. But you know Lawrence Lessig’s book, Code is Law, c.f. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. The software we build that never forgets is the software that disrupts our ability to forget. Right now, we no longer have the choice.

I want to make that choice. We are built to forget the information that is not relevant. Forgetting is important.



“...become hostage to the worst thing you’ve ever done” does hit the nail on the head. There has always been a tension between forgetting and remembering. We are already hostages to the worst things we’ve done, does it really matter if others also know the worst thing we’ve done?

You are right to say that we have not learned to deal with this kind of openness. However, younger folks who’ve grown up with Facebook and ubiquitousness of cameras and recording devices are working out their own evolutionary responses to this.

IMHO, in the final analysis, it appears that the benefits of remembering outweigh the harm it brings. Whether this opinion is my own or something that the powers-that-be have trained me to have is an open question.

AlokSingh 2017-05-10 07:48 UTC

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