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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

what, panopticon? you don't say!

(via Ars) according to Viktor Mayer-Schönberger from Harvard's School of Government, argues that, due to the ways digital technologies are used to record tons of minutiae about people's daily lives, society is headed towards a Benthamist panopticon. this is not a particularly surprising argument, and others have touched on this theme quite a bit. the suggestion in this "modest proposal" is that technologies be built, by default, to forget. that is, logging technologies, e.g. those on the iTunes music store website that collect customer info, would automatically wipe that info after a legally prescribed period of time, say, a couple years. files created by digital cameras would self-delete after a set time period, where the user of the camera gets to determine the length of that time period. it's true, forgetting is a very important part of the way that our society functions, and plays a role in smoothing over lots of possible awkward social situations. when you stop forgetting, you stop being able to levy plausible deniablility arguments about, say, what you were or weren't doing when your significant other claims to have caught you emailing another lover. furthermore, if everything is remembered, then memories lose their preciousness. it doesn't matter that I remebered your birthday, because I didn't actually remember, my electronic daily planner emailed me to remind me that it was your birthday. I think there are all sorts of aspects of memory that cannot be emulated by digital technologies, especially those parts of memory associated with subjective experience, so I doubt that the preciousness of human memory will ever be totally eroded.

the problem is, I'm just not convinced that what we need is a technological solution to this technology-induced problem. when the technology of writing was introduced, it fundamentally changed the way human memory functions. no longer did we live in an world of fleeting and ephemeral spoken word, but we could capture and preserve that word. print technologies only further reified the word as an object rather than a spoken event, and remembering became less important. were there similar debates when writing came about? indeed, Plato argues through Socrates in Phaedrus that writing, among other things, destroys memory because it allows things to be written down rather than simply remembered, and that writing is inhuman because it does not allow for the natural give-and-take of verbal communication. similarly, with the advent of pocket calculators, teachers and parents argue that children's mathematical abilities would be dulled by their reliance on the calculator as a crutch. in Orality and Literacy, Ong argues that while these things may be true, in the case of writing, by not having to remember everything, humans were able to engage in previously unachievable analytic thought. science, he argues, would not have been possible without writing. Ong goes into a much greater exploration of the subject in his book, as well as making some conjectures about the potential impacts of digital technologies (some of with I quite disagree with). it's worth the read if you're interested in such things.

back to the matter at hand, I'm not arguing that we need to just sit back, accept the fact that everything is remembered, and figure out how as a society we are going to adapt to this change. I would agree that computational systems are fundamentally different than the technologies of writing and printing with respect to memory. namely, writing and print allow us to record things, but digital technologies enable retrieval, and at continually improving speed and accuracy. thus, while we might have been able to remember things externally with books, search-type technologies enable an entirely new form of access to these external memories. essentially, the question becomes, how do we decide what gets remembered, and when do we decide to remember it? Gillian Hayes has done some really interesting work on systems that constantly archive everything, for example social interactions in a public space, but automatically delete the archives after 30 minutes if no one says, I want to remember that. her work is really top notch, and I highly recommend checking it out. while it might not always be possible to know that you want to remember something until after the fact, it certainly has benefits over the common alternative. that is, the approach of archiving everything, but only allowing people to find something specific for which they are looking. this later take leans much more on the side of the panopticon, but you don't run the risk of accidentally not remembering something important. neither approach is perfect, but I think both are better than devices that forcibly, automatically forget after a specified amount of time.

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