(Re)introducing ‘forgetting’ to the web, our desire for privacy and why ephemeral data is a wise but short-sighted move. 

As time goes by I am going to be expanding on some of the ideas from this initial post to delve deeper into the ideas of data ephemerality, its practicalities and most importantly - it’s future. As the ‘digital duality’ of the self disbands and the online and offline spheres merge at accelerating pace, in turn producing fully digital citizens, the idea of (re)introducing the natural art of forgetting in our digital lives becomes more apparent. I want to explore its place within our society.
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s profound and divergent book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age provokes an alternative approach to the web that needs to be addressed: data ephemerality.

Today’s society has reoriented itself to the present moment where “every-thing is live, real time, and always-on.” Academics such as Clay Shirky, Alvin Toffler and most avidly Douglas Rushkoff have elaborated on the increasing importance on ‘the now’ or ‘presentism’.(Present Shock: Where Everything Happens Now, 2013). Smartphones have increased the mobility of society, Twitter has helped condense large pieces of information into much easier consumable 140 character counterparts, and Snapchat has established a successful ephemeral messaging format. I mention this because this is the perfect place where the discourse of data ephemerality should be situated — in the here and now, because that is the place where the information stays forever. What is here today, may be gone tomorrow — ‘Presentism’ and ‘ephemerality’ need to be symbiotically considered.

“For we have not merely extended the scope and scale of change, we have radically altered its pace. We have in our time released a totally new social force—a stream of change so accelerated that it influences our sense of time, revolutionizes the tempo of daily life, and affects the very way we “feel” the world around us. We no longer “feel” life as men did in the past. And this is the ultimate difference, the distinction that separates the truly contemporary man from all others.” Alvin Toffler, (Future Shock, 1970).

Erasability used to be a mistake. An accidental press of the delete key, a sudden power spurge or a spill of some liquid on the hard-drive — it was never something that any engineer would want to build into their service. The success of the recent iOS and Android application ‘Snapchat’ seems to have reversed public opinion on the matter. But can the Snapchat model transcend, does it have a future?

Using the Snapchat app, users send photos or videos to recipients and can draw or write on the images before sending. Users then set a time limit (up to 10 seconds for photos) for how long recipients can view their content, after which it will be deleted from the recipient’s device. Basically, it’s a self-destructing messaging application that allows fast peer-to-peer and peer-to-many communication. But ‘basic’ was all it took; a very basic idea, a very basic interface and a very basic input function to bring the concept of ephemerality to the centre of societies gaze and make Snapchat one of the most important technological advances of the year.

The idea of data expiration or the notion of deleting data after a set time period is an entirely new prospect in an age where ‘big data’ and large external memory is becoming increasingly ubiquitous. Companies like Apple and Amazon are building entire eco-systems around the data that they collect in order to provide you with recommendations and tailored services. The gathering of user data, in the eyes of such large corporations, translates as: “the more data you have, the more useful your product becomes” — Snapchat translates as: “The less data you have, the more privacy the user has”.

Are we under the illusion that the quanitfying and storing of all this information is making us, as a society, smarter?

Before Snapchat, erasable content wasn’t an option, messaging Apps like Snapchat, Frankly, Ethira and the failed copy-cat Facebook Poke emphasise the rise in popularity of ephemeral messaging mediums. The issue, however, is more about how this trend will transcend into popular culture and wider society. The question that we must begin to ask is: what kind of internet do we want? Implementing Snapchats model of erasability fundamentally changes the internet from one of open eternal memory to one that replicates the features of a more sparse and less crowded private network.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger proposes a resolution. Fixing ‘data expiration’ tags to the content that we are uploading to the web would provide the content with a life-span. This life-span/expiry data would be dependent on the user/uploader of the content— some content may have a life-span of ‘infinity,’ such as Wikipedia articles, medical journals and so on, whilst more banal content, such as Tweets about your neighbours cat, may be designated to a timely 1 year. The time-span, it seems, would be subjective as to what the user deems worthy of the content — but are we ready to make the internet more inclusive? The participatory culture and the advent of Web 2.0 allowed society to contribute to the web, but are we ready to instill the trust that lets them take away from it?

To be continued…
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