Saturday, February 06, 2016


I dedicate a significant amount of time in my courses to thinking with students about our "digital selves" and our "digital lives." Most students-- most people, for that matter-- tend to think of the aggregate data that constitute their digital selves (social media profiles, Google searches, Netflix or Amazon preferences, banking transactions, medical records, online chats and text messages,smartphone location services results, etc, etc) as some sort of a shadow or reflection of them, but not really them. However, as I've written before on this blog (see: The "Real" and "True" You), there are a number of ways of looking at that aggregate data as more true and more real version of ourselves than our flesh-and-blood, "meatspace" selves. For example, our digital self, unlike our meatspace self, never forgets.  It may have an incomplete memory (though that is becoming less and less the case these days), but the memory it has is perfect.

The Internet is forever. For the most part, or at least as much as I believe in "forever," I really believe that to be true. The Universe is fundamentally mathematical, after all, and the base-2 structure of digital reality is nothing other than the simplest cipher for coding, recording and archiving all that is. Of course, there is "link rot," which mimics "forgetting" in a way and (as far as we know) results in genuinely "lost" data (so far). And there is the so-called Deep Web, something like our subconscious, not entirely inaccessible but designed to be clandestine, subversive, and very difficult to access. Still, there are enterprising analysts, every day, who are discovering new ways to find value in even the most mundane data. And for every new value (or potential value) they assign to data, there is an entrepreneur chomping at the bit to purchase it, store it, and wait for the right new technology to emerge that will make it profitable.

What the Internet doesn't possess, yet, is the power of what Nietzsche called "active forgetting," the ability to "clean the slate of [our] consciousness so that there is room again for new things."  (Then again, the Internet has infinite "room" and no motivational investment in psychic health or happiness.) For all the obvious parallels between the human mind and artificial minds, the capacity of the former to actively forget and the latter to compulsively remember is perhaps the most insistent difference. For we actually existing individuals, forgetting is a pharmakon; it is simultaneously a remedy, a poison, and a scapegoat.  At this point in the astonishingly rapid development of technology, the pharmakon (along with the paradox, the aporia, and imagination) is about all our feeble human minds have left to mark ourselves as distinct from artificial intelligence.

Nothing disappears from the Internet, I tell my students.  I tell them that mostly for prudential reasons, because I know they're young and impulsive and inclined to "speak"-- in posts, status updates, tweets, images, chats, purchases, searches, whatever-- without fully thinking through the long-term consequences.  The Screenshot God is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent and not at all benevolent, I remind them, there are no mulligans on the Internet. That advice is largely offered as a heuristic, a manner of placing a tiny little Jiminy Cricket on their shoulders, and I sometimes feel guilty (and old) when I say it, because it feels overly-paternalistic.  I suspect, given that today's university-age students have experienced barely a moment of their lives that wasn't already being surveilled, that my caution often falls on deaf ears. Even still, I haven't gathered up all this wisdom and experience over the years just to pile it up in my living room and gaze upon it.

We actively forget that the Internet does not forget at our own peril.

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