One of the most heartbreaking overlooked moments in the case of Rehtaeh Parsons – the 17-year-old Nova Scotian who killed herself in April after allegedly being raped and bullied – came in a blog post written by her father three days after her death.
“I had to write something about this,” one line read. “I don’t want her life to be defined by a Google search about suicide or death or rape. I want it to be about the giving heart she had.”
The sentiment is so moving because it is so fruitless. The Parsons tragedy is hypermodern – someone photographed her during the alleged rapes; the photo was disseminated around her school; her classmates sent her cruel, crude messages – and Rehtaeh will, of course, be defined by her Google search. As we all increasingly are.
At the heart of the Internet is a tension between ephemera and permanence. Every tweet, Facebook post and Instagram photo is a vehicle for instant gratification, but that information sticks around, squirrelled away forever – forgotten, until it isn’t.
Typically, this is cast as an issue of privacy: Does a job applicant, for example, deserve to lose an opportunity because Googling her name pulls up some long-ago indiscretion? But it’s more. Rehtaeh Parsons’s father was worried his daughter would be memorialized by forces outside human control, by the inscrutable, impersonal logic of algorithms.
The difference between how humans remember and how the Internet remembers is deep and fundamental. Humans forget, or remember selectively; the Internet remembers everything.
“For almost all of human history, collecting information and storing information was time-consuming and costly, and therefore we stored as little as possible,” says Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, a professor at Oxford University and the author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the New Digital Age. “Even the stuff we stored we rarely made use of, because retrieval was so expensive.”
But digital technology massively decreased the cost of data storage, and made accessing that information far easier. Now, we’re steeped not just in knowledge but in memory: of our checkered pasts, our personal failures, the ruined lives of our loved ones.
“Human forgetting actually performs a very important function for us individually as well as for society,” Prof. Mayer-Schönberger says. “It lets us act and think in the present rather than be tethered to an ever-more-comprehensive past. The beauty of the human mind and human forgetting is that, as we forget, we’re able to generalize, to abstract, to see the forest rather than the individual tree. And if we cannot forget, then all we will have are the individual trees to go by.”
In Rehtaeh Parsons’s case, all we have are those trees: the awful circumstances of her death, the official bungling of the investigation. A more human kind of memory would recall her as a whole person, someone with agency and interiority.
We live in an era of endless archiving. For $279, you can pre-order a “lifelogging camera” called Memoto, which attaches to your clothes and takes two geotagged photos every minute, around the clock: “This means that you can revisit any moment of your past.” the copy reads.
Google Glass, the tech giant’s much-hyped wearable computer, will also come with a camera. More nobly, the United Nations’ Memory of the World project aims to preserve the world’s “documentary heritage” – from the archives of the Dutch East India Company to the woodblocks of Vietnam’s Nguyen Dynasty.
Even Facebook’s Timeline redesign is a memorial project, creating as it does a single continuous stream of your entire existence on the social network.
The advantages of the Internet’s vast archive are obvious: Never before has our knowledge been so far-reaching or esoteric. Political projects such as WikiLeaks hold governments to account; online memorials to deceased loved ones create easily accessible places of mourning.
Indeed, there’s an emotional side to all this. A Tumblr called Sad YouTube collects poignant comments left on music videos. In one entry, someone with the username “napolean moran” recalls how the song Have You Seen Her? by the Chi-Lites reminds him of an old girlfriend. “I made a mistake and lost contact with her, a war came by and eventually had to leave my country [El Salvador] on self-imposed exile,” he writes. “Ever since I think of her and wish I had the chance to at least say that I was so sorry. I will never forget her.”
Mark Slutsky, the Montreal-based filmmaker behind the site, says YouTube plays an “unintentional role of archiving a haphazard oral history” of modern life. “People really are telling their stories – a moment that they remember that resonates with them, which might be lost or never shared if not for YouTube,” he says. “It’s serving a really interesting function of coaxing memories out of people.”
But too much digital memory can also do us a disservice. In the European Union, policy-makers are debating the “right to be forgotten” – an idea that sounds woolly but could soon become enshrined in law. In true EU fashion, the proposed changes are knotty and complex. But the idea is to grant users greater control over any personal information held by a company or government agency – that is, to establish a clear legal right to obtain personal data, stop it from being processed, or delete it entirely. The legislation would also harmonize data-privacy rules across the EU’s 27 member states.
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