Google is debating the right to forget. Not the right of the individual to forget, of course (they don’t have the technology for that, at least not yet). Google is debating the right of the individual to ask to be forgotten by it – the vast commercial entity that now acts as our culture’s entire collective memory.
Earlier this year, a ruling by the European Court of Justice allowed people to ask Google to remove information about them from its search index. So far, 90,000 individuals have applied for data to be deleted – everything from embarrassing photographs to information about criminal trials. Google opposes the ruling and is running seven public meetings about how best to balance the individual’s right to be forgotten with the public’s right to information (you can apply to attend, if you like, at google.com/advisorycouncil). I have to be honest, I’m probably not going to go. I’m too busy coming to terms with the fact that I live in a culture which has delegated the task of mapping the limits of our collective knowledge to an entirely unaccountable commercial entity. I don’t remember a single meeting about that decision, never mind seven.
I mean, I know it’s free. And it is terribly convenient. Plus it’s bloody fast if you’ve got a good signal. But still. Because, despite what most search engines (apparently there are others) will tell you, “external memory” isn’t just something that you add to your computer. It has a long and profound history. The first examples we have were drawn on the walls of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave 30,000 years ago: bison, horses, lions, panthers and hyenas all immortalised, each one representing more than an animal.
They also reveal the deep-rooted nature of “symbolic capacity”. This ability, some anthropologists argue, is the significant development in human history. When we evolved symbolic capacity, it allowed us to create “external memory stores” such as art, ritual, and eventually the written word. It allowed us to invent culture, the prism through which every individual’s behaviour and experience is refracted. Eventually it helped us to build the internet – the place into which we appear to be pouring our culture for safekeeping.
But whose? Our hopes, our dreams, our memories, heavily filtered photographs of what we had for lunch… who keeps the keys to our past? Whose finger is hovering over “delete”? It’s not just about Google, either. As Mark Zuckerberg would say, it’s complicated.
My view is that we should consider the vessel itself – not just debate what we’re adding to or removing from it (nobody questions search engine optimisation, and isn’t that the approximate process in reverse?). If we are putting all our eggs in one or two vast online baskets, shouldn’t we, the public, share a grip on the handle?
In 1942 George Orwell observed false propaganda about the Spanish Civil War passing into history, unquestioned, as fact. “This kind of thing is frightening to me,” he wrote in an essay, “because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world… I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written… Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists… the implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some other ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past… This prospect frightens me much more than bombs, and after our experiences of the past few years, that is not a frivolous statement.” Until next week, I’ll bid you a Shakespearean “Farewell. Thou canst not teach me to forget.”
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