Should Information Have an Expiration Date?

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

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

The importance is that by \r\nentering or having to enter an expiration whenever we store something, \r\nwe are reminded – we are reminded of the importance that information is \r\nnot timeless, but it is connected to a particular context in time and \r\nloses it’s value over time.  Most information does and so by setting \r\nexpiration date, we really link time with information, something that \r\nbiologically we cannot do. 

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

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

And\r\n so comprehensive digital memory might actually create that for us.  It \r\nmight give us a sense of not forgetting anymore and thereby preventing \r\nus humans from generalizing, abstracting, evolving, growing, and also \r\naccepting others to change over time, to evolve and to grow.  And \r\nwithout forgetting, we don’t have an ability to forgive.  [00:12:30.05] \r\n

Who would decide what information to set a date on?

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

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

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

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

Do you think we’ll see increased storing of sensitive \r\ninformation off line?

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

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

Recorded on April 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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