Felix Rambles

Another step to taking back control

Internet and memory

27 September 2018 — Felix Ple┼čoianu

While going through my old browser bookmarks recently, I was reminded once again how quickly the average web page goes away. It's part of the so-called digital dark age we're headed towards as more and more media files, stored on now-obsolete devices, become impossible to read, let alone decypher, if they haven't been long deleted.

(Not that it's a new phenomenon. The BBC erasing years of invaluable footage so they could reuse expensive tape reels made headlines a while ago. And it was par for the course back in the day.)

At the same time, it happens more and more that things people said or did years ago, sometimes in their teenage years, resurface unexpectedly thanks to social media, causing no end of trouble. It even led to the EU creating a "right to be forgotten", which was about as tone-deaf, ineffective and potentially damaging as the more recent GDPR. But I digress.

It seems like a contradition. On the one hand, we're complaining that computers are too forgetful, and launch on ample missions to rescue our collective digital memory. On the other hand, we're complaining that computers aren't forgetful enough, and call for crusades to bury the past. Maybe we should make up our minds already.

Except, of course, it's not possible. The same fire that cooks your food can just as easily burn down your house, and there's no way to magically make fire do only what you want. The best you can do is use fire sparingly and with proper precautions. So it is with knowledge. Any knowledge.

Because, you see, human brains require the ability to forget. We wouldn't be able to function otherwise. The price is that we sometimes forget important things. Oh, we can write them down, but writings can also get lost or destroyed. Ideally, those that enough people value will be preserved across the centuries. But since value is in the eye of the beholder, you never know exactly what will be preserved. And so it happens that some of the oldest surviving texts are complaints about a shady merchant in Ancient Mesopotamia. How's that for cosmic humor.

Writing, it turns out, works exactly like human memory in the long term. And so do websites.

While going through my huge pile of browser bookmarks, it was a pleasant surprise to discover how many pages are still there. Others are now gone, sometimes along with the whole website, or else locked up behind a paywall, which amounts to the same thing. Yet more are still there, but I can't for the life of me remember why I bookmarked them in the first place.

Guess comparing the web to a planet-sized brain isn't so far-fetched after all. And our brains sometimes remember terribly embarrassing situations we'd much rather forget. Especially mom's brain.

Ah, but you see, moms also forgive. Internet mobs, not so much.

Well, they'd better learn, because much like with brains, you can't control what the internet does and doesn't remember. Not without breaking it. Nor can you put the genie back into the bottle, any more than you can tell Prometheus to take his newfangled fire and return it to the gods.

But do we understand ourselves well enough in the first place to deal with this monster we've created in our own image?

Tags: social-media, website

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