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How can we keep from destroying information that might be relevant later?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who would decide what information to set a date on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded on April 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen