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 and forgetting.

This started a discussion on Mastodon, but all my toots on that topic have since expired.

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 the 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.

In the end, it was simply easier to delete my Facebook and Flickr accounts. And where as I did find a tool that allowed me to delete all my tweets on Twitter (Twitter Archive Eraser), I ended up deleting my Twitter accounts, too.

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.”

In that old thread on Mastodon, 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. 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. These days, forgetting is harder than keeping data forever. Software engineers coming from a background full of version control software have a particularly hard time grasping the importance of forgetting for our daily lives. 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” eventually and it has an option to delete old page revisions after a while. Yes, somebody can still set up a feed reader 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.

Sometimes people will mention archives. If we all expire our data, will future historians think of our times as the dark ages? But let’s not forget: real archives need curation. We can’t just keep the dregs of daily life forever. The future will drown in our micro blogs. Are you curating your micro blog? Neither am I. But this blog is somewhat curated. And I don’t expire pages from the blog without reason. We need this continuum of options.

There’s also the question of whether we consent to this future. Now that we are living in a world where forgetting keeps getting harder: is this perfect memory something you agree with? 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 as 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”. 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.

Fuck it The alternative, the thing that we’re building right now, the default future if you will, is the exact opposite. We’re building a Panopticon where the rich and powerful can keep watch on us, where surveillance capitalism reaps the fruit of our data and we can’t trust a single website.

That is why I might want to keep a copy of my toots on Mastodon, but I don’t think they have much value going back months and years. I never read through years of tweeting history! This only benefits your enemies, never your friends. I want to expire my toots. We can always write a blog post about the good stuff.



“...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

I think the important thing is forgiveness, not forgetting.

– d 2019-05-01 03:43 UTC

Both of you seem to imply that in the future, people will learn to forgive, and for a while that is what I expected to happen as well. But if I look around myself, I see that people have adapted in a different way: their social media is filled with fake images of themselves, fake authenticity performances, fake values, fake virtue signalling, fake interests, and all the rough edges and ugly truths are buried and hidden and kept as secret as can be.

As for the value of remembering: I’m thinking of our brains not remembering everything but curating memory, remembering the things that had emotional value, reconstructing memories from fragments, and so on. This blog, keeping a curated selection of things, posted when I felt it was worth it, seems like a good compromise. It does depend on the more ephemeral and useless social media posts to expire, however.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-05-01 21:45 UTC

I removed the section about David Duke, an “American neo-Nazi, antisemitic conspiracy theorist, far-right politician, convicted felon, and former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.” (Wikipedia) I had originally written that if he “deleted all his posts, and provided no more clues to his white supremacist opinions, and we no longer remembered 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 to remember all the names, link them, trace them?” @ljwrites rephrased it as “it would make public life bearable if he deleted his posts and everyone forgot he was ever an asshole?” Yeah, that does sound creepy and weird.

I still feel that for me personally, I need to close that justice gap in my life just so that I can keep functioning in society. There are so many injustices in the world, and I can’t feel that burning rage for all of them. I’ll burn out. It feel sad admitting it, but there’s nothing else I can do. I don’t have the energy to think through the big injustices of this world. Those need collective action: people organizing, and I hope they do, and I hope that my government and the non-government organisations I support will support these people in turn. I hope that my incomplete engagement for some issues will, together with all the incomplete engagements of other people nevertheless lead to a better world. So, if you work for justice, for human rights, for historic archives, my hat is off to you. But as for me: I’m not, so I have options.

And in the end, I need a way to deal with the terror of this world in order to function. I don’t want to drink it away, so I need another way to handle it.

My solution is to try and limit my intake: I don’t read as much newspapers as I used to. I don’t watch TV. I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t follow journalists. I donate some money to organisations to do this and that and when they send me the reports of what they did I don’t read them because it all just gets me down. Limiting my intake is part of self-care.

I also try to avoid getting reminded of the things I dislike. People that aggravate me online, I block them. Unwanted details about the terrors of this world, I skip them.

I also try to find empathy in me for the disagreeable words and actions I see around me. It’s an extended form of charitable reading, a form of explaining the world to myself. I imagine that these people must believe that they are right, must believe that they are making the right choices. I think they don’t know what they’re doing and I need to find a way to forgive them. It helps, sometimes.

Yes, that is not justice. That’s letting people off the hook. But there comes a point where I need to let go. I need to focus my attention closer to home. The friends we meet are more important. The games we play are more important. The things we do are more important. If I can, I try to forgive and forget. It’s what makes all of this bearable.

– Alex 2021-05-25 21:46 UTC

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