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Question: How might we set an expiration date on information?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: I advocate a revival of forgetting.  And there’s a number of ways to do that.  One is expiration dates.  Expiration dates would be very simple to implement.  It’s just another form of meta-data, much like you have file names, date of creation, date of modification, exact location of a file on your hard disk and so forth.  And expiration dates would just add another category of meta-data to the file system.  We would be able to select the expiration date in any form or shape we want, be able to change it after the fact, of course, but once the expiration date has been hit, the file would be deleted by the system. 

The importance is that by entering or having to enter an expiration whenever we store something, we are reminded – we are reminded of the importance that information is not timeless, but it is connected to a particular context in time and loses it’s value over time.  Most information does and so by setting expiration date, we really link time with information, something that biologically we cannot do. 

If I may, I’d like to interject something here and that is, we started off and I said there’s two kinds of dimensions, the power dimension, and did I mention that there is a second dimension that gets overlooked quite frequently, which I call the time dimension.  And that has to do with the fact that we humans are biologically programmed to forget.  We forget most of what we experience every day.  That’s a way by which we can abstract and generalize and evolve and grow and rid ourselves of stuff that is no longer relevant to us. 

What is interesting is that if we can’t do that, then we become burdened by the details of our past to the point that it makes us indecisive and it shapes the way we decide.  We know a little bit about that because there’s a small number of people who cannot forget.  They have a biological difficulty of forgetting.  So if you ask them about a day 30 years ago, they can tell you when they got up, who called, what was on television in the morning, what they had for breakfast, and so forth for every single day in the last 30 years.  It would be great, I thought because they would never forget where they parked their car on the mall parking lot, but the problem is, they hate that.  Many of those people who have difficulties forgetting hate the ability to not get rid of the old.  They remember all of the mistaken decisions of their past all the time and that troubles them a great deal and it inhibits their ability to decide and act in the present and to think in the future. 

And so comprehensive digital memory might actually create that for us.  It might give us a sense of not forgetting anymore and thereby preventing us humans from generalizing, abstracting, evolving, growing, and also accepting others to change over time, to evolve and to grow.  And without forgetting, we don’t have an ability to forgive.  [00:12:30.05] 

Who would decide what information to set a date on?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: I believe that the expiration date is a way by which we humans, we individuals, have a chance to reflect and to choose.  So, it’s us that decide.  It’s not government; it’s not the processors, the online servicers that decide how long they want to keep information.  It’s us.  And whenever we share information, we also add an expiration date to it.  And then the other side can choose whether to accept the information with the expiration date or not; whether to actually cut the deal and transact or not.  In fact, many vendors, particularly online vendors who have a very close relationship with their customers, as consumers actually would probably prefer, or enjoy expiration dates. 

Think of Amazon.com.  Amazon now has a lot of transactional information about my books and other purchases that I did in the past.  But what is it good for Amazon to know what I shopped for nine months ago, or 12 months ago, or 15 months ago if I’m no longer interested in what I shopped then.  It would be great for Amazon to know, not what my preferences were 15 months ago, but what my preferences are today.  And with the expiration date, we help the vendors as well to limit the amount of data that they have, that is irrelevant and to focus more on the still relevant information, the still relevant preferences and values that they can then use to make recommendations to us.
How can we keep from destroying information that might be relevant later?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: You know, the bottom line is that for all of human history, we forgot most of what we experienced and we remembered only those things that we thought were really important.  Sometimes we were right and we remembered the right things.  Sometimes we were wrong and we remembered idiotic things.  The importance is that the remembering was the exception and forgetting was the default, was the rule.  And today, this has become reversed.  Remembering today is the default and all of our digital tools and artifacts we use and forgetting, deleting, is costly and time consuming. 

The fundamental problem is that I want to right this shift again and to bring back forgetting into our society.  But I also appreciate and value the fact that for certain kinds of information, we need to be protective.  We need to protect the information, keep it recorded and archive it; public information, governmental information, court records, information that the media publishes.  These are all incredibly important sources of societal memory and societal history that we ought to preserve.  But these are the exceptions.  The rule still should be for most of that we still can forget and ought to.

Do you think we’ll see increased storing of sensitive information off line?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: I don’t know.  I don’t know.  My sense is that at this point in time, if you have a present convenience and a danger that is far into the future, a lot of people opt for the present convenience.  And so I don’t think that a lot of people today would choose to be careful.  Except, of course if they’ve been burned.  And many, many people are already suffering from what they said on Facebook, or what they Tweeted.  And more will suffer.  The fact that Twitter Tweets are now archived and recorded in the Library of Congress brings that point to the forefront.  The fact is that Twitter for a very long period of time has let other companies look at the Twitter feeds.  It’s not just the Library of Congress that has it.  It’s many other commercial companies that have Twitter feeds and are actually doing stuff with it.  And that might come to haunt us.  The more people that are getting affected by it, the more will change the behavior. 

I am troubled by the fact that many of those people will change their behavior toward self-censorship and I am troubled by it because that’s not what we need in society and that is denying the web tools that we have today, the value that is inherent in them in sharing knowledge and experiences and so forth.

Recorded on April 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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