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Harvard Prof Says Computers Need to Forget 341

Jessamine writes "A Harvard professor argues that too much information is being retained by computers, and the machines need to learn how to forget things as humans always have. "If whatever we do can be held against us years later, if all our impulsive comments are preserved, they can easily be combined into a composite picture of ourselves," he writes in the paper. "Afraid how our words and actions may be perceived years later and taken out of context, the lack of forgetting may prompt us to speak less freely and openly." Will such massive databases make us all act like politicians? Is data retention creating a "panopticon"? These are questions that the good doctor raises."
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Harvard Prof Says Computers Need to Forget

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  • Hmm (Score:5, Funny)

    by sharp-bang ( 311928 ) <> on Thursday May 10, 2007 @08:05AM (#19065289) Homepage
    I am really tempted to comment on this, but I'm worried that it will be archived and used against me later.
    • I am really tempted to comment on this, but I'm worried that it will be archived and used against me later.

      Don't worry, comrade. Communists like you are safe.

      • Da, tovarish, and don't worry, they'll never convict you []. ;-)
        • Ick! I hope nobody ever murders Steve Ballmer. (Did I just say that?!)

        • Reminds me of 2 jokes.
          1) 2 soviets are talking
          a: "Good morning Tovarish, I hear that congratulations are in order"
          b: "You do, why?"
          a: "Well, your brother in Leningrad just won a car"
          b: "Oh, yes, except it wasn't my Brother, it was my uncle... It wasn't in Leningrad, it was Stalingrad, it wasn't a car, it was a bike, and he didn't win it, it was stolen. But Generally speaking, that's right"

          or better yet 2)
          a) Tovarish, I am so upset, a swiss soldier just came and stole my Russian watch!
          b) I am confused, don't
    • "sharp-bang worried that his comment will be archived and used against him later"... noted. This will be used against you later.
    • Don't worry. To make up for the computers, I vow to forget even more. Starting with that vow. ...Wait, what were we talking about?
    • the whole picture (Score:5, Insightful)

      by fishdan ( 569872 ) * on Thursday May 10, 2007 @08:50AM (#19065725) Homepage Journal

      If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart.
      If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.
      - falsely attributed to Winston Churchill []

      What the good doctor is missing is that you are the whole picture. Everything that happened in your life, good and bad has lead you to where you are today. To deny/forget the bad would make you less of a human. I am still that 11 year old kid who played D&D and cried when that jerk of a DM killed my 35th level mage that I cheated to make. I'm still the guy who in high school managed to seduce the hottest girl in school. I'm still the guy who took 4 grams of mushrooms on a road trip from Austin to New Orleans to make the time pass (though I wasn't driving). I'm still the guy who was on the Longhorns SouthWest Conference championship Lacrosse team. I'm still the guy who failed out of college 3 years later. I'm still the Sp.ED teacher who worked for 7 years teaching autistics before realizing I could live up to my family obligations on a Sp.Ed teachers salary. I'm still the guy who defaulted on some significant debts in my 20s. I'm still the jerk who told that girl I loved her only so I could sleep with her...

      I'm still the good husband and mighty developer I am today. But all because of all that stuff in the past.

      I completely understand what was IMPLIED by the article, but I that that is an issue of privacy, not of computing. And to imply that people should forget about their past (or others) doesn't seem like a good idea. I am about as anti-religion as you can get, but I recognize the powerful words "...and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

      Forgive, but don't forget. Remember where you came from, and what you overcame.
      • by delire ( 809063 ) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @09:02AM (#19065867)
        Thankyou, your file has been updated.
      • by Anonymous Coward
        I'm still the guy who took 4 grams of mushrooms on a road trip from Austin to New Orleans...
        ...I'm still the guy who failed out of college 3 years later
        ...I'm still the guy who defaulted on some significant debts in my 20s

        Yeah, I think we see enough of your "whole picture" rather clearly.
      • by hoggoth ( 414195 ) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @09:49AM (#19066531) Journal
        > played D&D and cried
        > seduce the hottest girl in school

        Non-sequitor! Error! Paradox encountered! Cannot reconcile! Daisy... daisy... give me your answer true...
      • by psymastr ( 684406 ) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @10:19AM (#19067005) Homepage

        I'm still the guy who in high school managed to seduce the hottest girl in school. I'm still the guy who took 4 grams of mushrooms on a road trip from Austin to New Orleans to make the time pass (though I wasn't driving).
        And from now on you're the guy that bragged about it on slashdot. That's the saddest of them all.

  • Responsibility (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Nerdfest ( 867930 ) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @08:05AM (#19065291)
    Perhaps people should think a little more before they open their mouths, or in this case, apply their fingers to their keyboards. A computer record of your silliness is not much different than a person remembering some stupid thing you said many years before ... but at least it's more accurate.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by new_breed ( 569862 )
      Yes, except that a computer can show a lot of persons far more accurately what that stupid thing was, instead of that *one* person *maybe* remembering it.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Kandenshi ( 832555 )
      I assume there are a bunch of slashdotters who've spent time on IRC? There are plenty of people spouting stuff online that they (hopefully) wouldn't say in real life. The only time that computer logging is going to be inhibitory is when your statements can easily be linked back to your actual real life identity by either people you know or The Secret Police Of Scariness.

      If everything we did online could easily be traced back to us by our neighbours then yeah, I'd expect we'd be visiting fewer naughty webs
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by sumdumass ( 711423 )
        While some will argue that you shouldn't have to be anonymous in a free society, I would answer with they should be thinking about their future if they decide to post something then. But with that aside, I would say spot on.

        You are right, there are plenty of ways to get a message out without having it directly pointed back at you. And seriously, if someone is worried about what might bite them latter in life, then I guess they need to take a more serious look at what they say and what they expect to be doin
    • by jrumney ( 197329 )
      It's easy to say so now, but in 1992, someone posting to Usenet had no expectation that their comments would be archived forever and be easily searchable by anyone with an internet connection and 10 seconds to spare.
      • Re:Responsibility (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Dogtanian ( 588974 ) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @09:20AM (#19066045) Homepage

        It's easy to say so now, but in 1992, someone posting to Usenet had no expectation that their comments would be archived forever and be easily searchable by anyone with an internet connection and 10 seconds to spare.
        This is quite true; there's a lot of adolescent drivel out there with my real name on it which I posted circa '93-95 (and some even later) that I didn't realise would be archived. Usenet then *was* seen to be ephemeral.

        In the future, given the merging of information databases (including weblogs containing cookies and/or IPs) and data-mining software's improved ability to automatically spot patterns and "join-the-dots" connecting superficially unconnected identities, it wouldn't surprise me if it was trivially possible to find out who someone posting behind an anonymous account (today) was at some stage in the future.

        Personally, I don't assume that *anything* I post on the Internet nowadays will remain unconnected with me forever.

        As for the panopticon concept, if it gets really bad, it may be that human behaviour and attitudes will be forced into changing. Society may end up "accepting" that people say and do things in different contexts, and that no-one is perfect under the surface and politely disregarding such things in much the same way that city-dwellers pretend that the other people on a busy train aren't there.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by ImaLamer ( 260199 )
          This is quite true; there's a lot of adolescent drivel out there with my real name on it which I posted circa '93-95 (and some even later) that I didn't realise would be archived. Usenet then *was* seen to be ephemeral.

          Even worse is when you were the only in the neighborhood with a real ISP. All my friends had AOL or Prodigy so they came to me to ask the USENET about drugs and other things... under my name.

          I fear my next interviewer will know how to Google.
    • Unrealistic (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Brave Guy ( 457657 ) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @08:48AM (#19065695)

      I'm all for personal responsibility, but this isn't as simple as standing by what you once said.

      For one thing, no-one is perfect. If I took offence every time one of my friends said or did something a little childish or hurtful to another of my friends, I would have few friends left, yet I know that all of my friends are basically nice, decent people, who on balance I am glad I met. Magnify this up to the whole world stage, and suddenly the whole world is an a**hole.

      Secondly, people's views change for many reasons, not all of them bad, and society as a whole is not good at recognising this. Just look at what happens to politicians today who change their position on an issue. "U-turn! U-turn!" As I've pointed out before, even in politics it is silly to think that our elected representatives have the time to fully study each issue on which they vote in the same detail as an expert, or to retain a staff of suitably smart and qualified people who can at least advise them well. Wouldn't you rather be represented by someone who would change their mind if they realised their previous position was short-sighted or ill-informed, rather than one forced by the system to stick to their guns even if they knew they had made a mistake?

      I've commented on this subject before on Slashdot, in the context of social networking sites. I think humanity needs to learn that in a highly-connected world, you have to be careful what you say, you have to be wary of reading too much into what others say, and most important of all, you have to cut people a little slack sometimes. Right now, IMHO, our laws don't place nearly enough value on privacy, and I think this is a painful lesson that we are going to learn as an entire generation who grew up with the likes of Facebook, Myspace and LiveJournal run into problems for the next few decades.

      Bottom line: kids will be kids, adults will behave like kids sometimes, even the most mature and responsible adult makes mistakes, and all of this is only human. I, for one, would prefer not to live in a world where everyone's dirty laundry was aired in public, with full search features.

      • by fotbr ( 855184 )
        I'd love to have politicans who realized their mistake and tried to correct it. The problem is no one will ADMIT that they were wrong, and instead just change their position with no explanation.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by sumdumass ( 711423 )
          The "uturns" and "flipflpos" people are talking about isn't were a politician says he believes X now and then later in life believes Y.

          What it is and I rightfully agree with the criticism and it being a problem is were a politician is claims belief X in front of one crowd and belief Y in front of another or changes his position for no other reasons then they think it will get votes. I can give a sorts of reasons why I changed my position if you vote for me or at least don't vote against me. This doesn't mea
    • Silliness, political views, religous views, sexual orientation, or any number of things. I wrote essays in college about the death penalty, legalization of drugs, etc. I've searched for nekkid pictures online. Any or all of this could be used against me when applying for a job, a house loan, or so on. Should it?

      Do you want to see people denied employment because they wrote an obnoxious athiest essay when they were 16? Should someone be considered a probable druggie if they wrote a Slashdot post advo

    • When the story is left to two people competing and trying to remember it casts doubt on both. When a computer remembers for one party it seems pretty solid except that the context might not be understood anymore. Archived data coming back to haunt you is less likely when pseudonyms are allowed (i.e. pretty much all of Slashdot) in which case you cannot directly (easily) link back to a real person. It's more of a problem in social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook where most often real names and ide
  • Interesting, but we need to consider the human memory. Do we really 'forget' things? Or do we simply lose the 'links' to the memory, akin to deleting a file but not emptying it from the Recycling Bin. 'Psychics' like Derren Brown are able to get people to unlock memories they forgot they had - it doesn't mean we've forgotten the details themselves, just how to access them. We're not so different from computers after all.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Nope. Studies have been done on these 'suppressed memories'. The general consensus is that these memories are manufactured after the fact. What is scary is that when suppressed memories were all the rage about a decade ago, people were getting convicted based on this evidence. I wonder how many innocent people are still in jail based on pop-science.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      Do we really 'forget' things?
      Wives don't - ever!
    • While the biology of neurons is not entirely understood we can at least say these things:

      1) Cells die all over the brain all the time.
      2) All cells are stateful - i.e., they all "remember" something.
      3) Most of the cells are "rewriteable." It's possible that parts of all of them are.

      Given this, I'm gonna have to go out on a limb and say that you actually do forget things. Occasionally, you have a cell die that can trigger other memories, but you also flat-out lose the memories (remember, you lose cells from
    • but we need to consider the human memory. Do we really 'forget' things?

      Yes, we do - and more than that, even as long as we do remember, memory is not really fixed. As far as I understand (and if I remember correctly!) what I read about it a couple of months ago, memories in fact change slightly each time we recall them, by recalling them.

      Which makes especially old memories a lot less reliable than we used to think. Which also is the basis for the phenomenon of people recreating their memories to what they want to remember. When someone strongly believes in a factually wrong m

    • by Pope ( 17780 )
      Yes, we forget things all the time. Do you really remember what you did on that first Friday of June when you were 4? I doubt it. It's not important enough to be stored in a long term association unless something dramatic enough happened to make it stick.

      People can be coaxed into remember memories that are not readily accessible through associations. However, most of the so-called "lost memories" that people have never happened in the first place.
  • Solved (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fatduck ( 961824 ) * on Thursday May 10, 2007 @08:07AM (#19065319)
    Won't we eventually forget where we saved this stuff? Seriously, though, maybe a better solution is for people to stop getting offended about everything. Maybe if we weren't so obsessed with whether someone had ever posted something on the internet indicating they deviate slightly from societal norms and using that information to decide whether someone is qualified for a job or service this wouldn't be an issue.
    • Won't we eventually forget where we saved this stuff?

      Or the formats won't be readable owing to "technological progress".

      A few years ago the local high school put out their yearbook on CD-ROM. *Only* on CD-ROM. Twenty years from now, how many CD-ROM players will there be?

      Why, this very comment is formatted in HTML tags that may or may not be browser-supported twenty years from now.
      • Twenty years from now, how many CD-ROM players will there be?
        Still a fairly large number, I should imagine. Some may wear out, the majority may be thrown out, but there will still be a large amount in workable order, simply because so many were sold in the first place; and someone can always transfer it to another media type.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by hazem ( 472289 )
      I agree. This technological memory will be painful at first as only a few are hit hard by the judgment society imposes against them for their recorded actions.

      When a majority of peoples lives are recorded and available for review, the bar for what is truly scandalous will be set much higher. Soon it will be: "Pictures of me in a pirate hat drinking a beer at a party? Who doesn't have a picture like that on the internet? You should see the one of my with the kangaroo and that giant bucket of peanut butte
  • No kidding (Score:5, Interesting)

    by wiredog ( 43288 ) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @08:08AM (#19065325) Journal
    I just pulled my credit report [], which I do 3 or 4 times a year. My address at my old air defense outfit at Ft Polk (D 1/55 ADA) is still listed there.

    I got out of the army in 1988.

  • ...but needs some context.

    Quite happy for my old e-mails and old student website to be "forgotten" (makes me cringe looking on the Wayback Machine, hope my kids never find it).

    Not so happy for my old digital photos to be forgotten. After all, I took those because I wanted to preserve information for the future - the purpose of most photos.

    Definitely needs to be context-aware.
  • Context (Score:5, Insightful)

    by onion2k ( 203094 ) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @08:12AM (#19065359) Homepage
    If the worry is that things can be taken out of context then we have only two options: remember everything so context can be retained, or remember nothing. If computers 'forget' (can't we just say 'delete'?) some things and retain others then we'll have problems contextualising content.

    Personally, I'd rather computers stored everything. Human history is only as rich as it is because scholars hundreds, even thousands, of years ago wrote things down. The periods of our past where writing was unusual are only known about through what amounts to educated speculation. How sad would it be that in the next thousand years there's no record of what we did and said because we're fearful of what some mysterious power might do with the archive?

    The tin-foiled paranoids should be more worried about what a rogue power would do without any history to look back on. It works both ways: "Where were you on May 10th 1977? You don't remember? You have no record? YOU HAVE NO ALIBI! You must be guilty!".
    • by Tribbin ( 565963 )
      So the best thing for future history is;

      Tell people that computers forget and then just store everything anyway.

      This way people will speak freely and there will be more information stored that otherwise would not have been because of fear.
    • I help manage a lot of medical information. Clearly, some of the stuff that people can be treated for is downright embarrassing. The catch is, if we start purging data that might fall into some vague "I don't want my mom to know" category, we won't be able to treat the person to the best of our ability now. One's health is often the sum of one's medical history. A tiny problem that showed up ten years ago might be related to the serious problem today.

      The whole point of medical systems is to supplemen
  • by GauteL ( 29207 ) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @08:18AM (#19065399)
    Right now, you can find 10 year old newsgroup postings from myself when searching Google. That is in my opinion too much data retention. I don't think they are particularly embarrassing now, but there was a time when my 10 year old newsgroup postings would have been posted when I was 14-15 or so.

    They embarrasseed me, and I don't think I should be expected to be cautious about this issue when in my teens. People forget most of your silly mistakes from such a while ago but databases do not, unless you instruct them to.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Chrisje ( 471362 )
      My brother in law (I'm 17 years younger than he is) always points out to any new girlfriend (or friend, for that matter) I bring home that he's "known him since he was still shitting his pants as a wee laddie".

      This embarrassed me. And I don't think I should be expected to be cautious about this issue when in my pre-toddler years.

      People don't forget squat, I'm afraid to say. At least computers/google have to be explicitly prompted to go find particular information. My brother in law freely disseminates it on
    • 10 years? It goes a lot farther than that. I found a bunch of posts that I wrote back in 1987. Comp.sys.amiga lives!!!
  • by volsung ( 378 ) <> on Thursday May 10, 2007 @08:21AM (#19065421)

    At the moment, data is easy to create, but it is also easy to destroy, especially by accident. The constant churn in storage technologies and file formats ensures that anything which entropy does not destroy might become effectively unreadable in 10-20 years anyway. As it stands now, our digital short term memory lasts maybe decades without well considered, active maintenance.

    Think about all digital photos that will certainly be gone in 50 years. (Not that this will be entirely a bad thing. The future probably doesn't want photos of people drinking beer while wearing pirate hats.)

    • The constant churn in storage technologies and file formats ensures that anything ... might become effectively unreadable in 10-20 years anyway.

      I am not so sure of that. As time goes by, our storage capacity grows. When people got their 4G drives, they simply copied their entire old 504M drive onto it. When they got their 20G, the 4G got copied onto it. 200-300G drives are popular now, with Terabyte sized drives just around the corner. RAID technology is going to take care of the hardware failure is
  • I disagree (Score:5, Funny)

    by CmdrGravy ( 645153 ) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @08:22AM (#19065431) Homepage
    It's not often I take time out from my high pressure and high profile work ( which I am currently excelling at, smashing all targets once again for the 12th consecutive year ) to comment on /. but I will make an exception in this case.

    A lot of people have, quite rightly, highly praised my work for charity and the modest advances I have been able to bring to many areas of scientific endeavour and whilst I am obviously too modest to trumpet these achievments myself it would be nice if future employers or business partners were able to locate them on the web.

    Employers especially can often be faced with seemingly excellent prospective employees only to find later on the full details of their sordid obsessions have been documented fully on the web for years. For myself, an excellent choice for almost any position you would want to fill, I welcome scrutiny on the web since I am confident this will simply highlight my excellent skills at driving projects forward and delivering truly innovative and groundbreaking solutions ( at a low low price ) not to mention my near legendary interpersonal and team building skills and a level of honesty which has in some quarters become a byword for "Solid Gold Standard".

    Certainly it has been said that there is no finer employee than myself to truly add value to any business and that as a business partner I cannot be beaten.

    It's just tragic that the network appears to be moving ahead of the scientists at this point and appears to be in the throes of some sort of dementia with regards to information about me. I think it's mistaken me for someone else :-(
  • People just need to learn to stop taking things out of context.
  • If I leave, everything I've said will still be there and attributable to me long after my views might have changed []

    I use a different user name on every online forum (except for this one and This is a precautionary measure to make it harder to link all my online personas. Of course, it is possible, if you have sufficient computing power and/or access to the machines (and their logs) that I have used. However, for a simple search it i
    • The right to vanish??

      Didn't you know that only ninjas have the right to vanish, and they are still required to leave behind an annoying smoke cloud that fills your sinuses in the process.

  • I believe that data retention will lead to less strict attitudes about what people have said in the past. Common sense dictates that a person's values and beliefs change over time. What someone once said need not necessarily be held against them later.

    What happens, happens. The fact that something is recorded does not change that.

    That being said, I do think twice about what I post online.

    PS. I live in Finland, Europe... So I'm a bit biased by not living in a police state ;)
  • I must admit that the idea is interesting, but also very scary. I agree with the professor that computers can store perhaps a bit too much about yourself. On the other hand, you don't want to do much in front of the computer that might end up lost.

    Part of the reason that we use computers is because it is a solid way of archiving data. Ultimately, you are responsive for your opinions, views, comments and letters. Should you create and hold sensitive material, then you probably know how important it is to
  • From the summary: "If whatever we do can be held ... they can easily be combined into a composite picture of ourselves."

    Oh my $DEITY. We wouldn't want people to actually be able to know something more than what anyone lets on at the moment. /SARCASM

    Here's a thought: Maybe it's not a bad thing to be able to be able to look at a person's history. If someone cannot consistently keep a cool head in public, that's valid information. If they once espoused a certain opinion, and have since changed their mind, t
  • by LoudMusic ( 199347 ) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @08:30AM (#19065519) d=2467504 []

    So how about it, Slashdot, lets start deleting old database entries. ;)
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jcnnghm ( 538570 )
      This is exactly why computers shouldn't "forget". Your comment, and the majority of that post, provides invaluable cultural insight into the thoughts of a community on a device, which, years later, would become an everyday item.
  • by seanellis ( 302682 ) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @08:33AM (#19065559) Homepage Journal
    "Afraid how our words and actions may be perceived years later and taken out of context, the lack of forgetting may prompt us to speak less freely and openly"

    I'm not worried about computers doing this - the same thing applies to my wife. <rimshot/>

    (Note to prospective employer in 2041: The above is a joke. Please give me a job.)
  • "while my good friend senator brown has presented himself to you as a family friendly candidate, i am only trying to help the american public understand him better if he were to be elected come december rather than myself, by bringing to light some grave AIM chat scripts from june 2006..."

    "When i was 14 years old"

    "now senator, you need to own up to what you say and do, take some personal responsibility, isn't that what you keep pressing as a message on your constituents?"

    "moderator, i think that now would be a good time..."

    "ehem, william brown: 'OMFG, look at this lolcat'"


    "unidentified individual only known as counterstrike-masterstrafer03: 'wtf, "i are serious cat", omfg, lol'"


    "william brown: 'you like pussy cats?'"


    "counterstrike-masterstrafer03: 'i like the cock fights, if you know what i mean, lol'"

    "moderator i must insist at the totally inappropriate..."

    "william brown: 'a/s/l?'"

    "alright, if my opponent insists on this kind of personal negativity i am only compelled to bring to the attention of the american public a log of eMule downloads for a certain ip address of in april of 2002, does that ip sound familiar mr. gordon?"

    "how dare you"

    "ehem, 'bangbus 25: lisa and raoul'"


    "'spanking nannies 3, the return of mistress oblivion'"

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ohearn ( 969704 )
      Personally I welcome something like this. Maybe it will get the American public to finally realize that talking about sex is not this big bad thing that we should shun people for.
  • You could make a similar argument against history. Let's forget that nasty Nazi thing, it's really not our best effort, after all. Slavery? Never happens. Inquisition? The church would never do that. The list, unfortunately, goes on.

    There is some value in leaving the past behind. However, even if prior actions are forgiven, or seen as mitigated by context, they needn't be forgotten. Everyone's done things they'd rather deny, would maybe pretend never happened. But such negative actions define us as
  • Afraid how our words and actions may be perceived years later and taken out of context, the lack of forgetting may prompt us to speak less freely and openly."

    I wonder if this guy has ever read a flame war. Who thinks there's a danger of people not speaking freely enough?
  • Similar to how the brain works (AFAIK, I'm not a biologist, etc.), the issue is whether you can find data, not whether it's stored.

    Things that you have forgotten may still be stored somewhere, but the connections needed to retrieve the actual "data" are lost, so you cannot get to the actual information.

    Something similar happens with computers, I may have an e-mail/IM archive over the past 10 years or so, but if I don't know what (combination of) keywords to look for, I won't be able to find anything. It's s
  • My computer forgets me all the time. I pass by in the morning and say "hello, friend" and it would respond "who are you?", I'd say "it's me, you must remember me!" but oh no, it wouldn't believe me and refuse to let me in without a fight.
  • ...but its all used for the common good. (meaning: never used against me)
  • by dpbsmith ( 263124 ) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @08:57AM (#19065805) Homepage
    Yet another overreaction to social change. It's different, it's scary because... it involves computers. The problem has existed ever since the first Egyptian wrote a love letter on papyrus.

    Nothing new here. People will worry about it a bit every time a new problem breaks, then they'll forget and start committing imprudent things to electronic storage just as they always committed them to paper.

    Why, very first Sherlock Holmes story, A Scandal in Bohemia deals with this very problem:

      "Your Majesty, as I understand, became entangled with this young person, wrote her some compromising letters, and is now desirous of getting those letters back."

    "Precisely so. But how--"

    "Was there a secret marriage?"


    "No legal papers or certificates?"


    "Then I fail to follow your Majesty. If this young person should produce her letters for blackmailing or other purposes, how is she to prove their authenticity?"

    "There is the writing."

    "Pooh, pooh! Forgery."

    "My private note-paper."


    "My own seal."


    "My photograph."


    "We were both in the photograph."

    "Oh, dear! That is very bad! Your Majesty has indeed committed an indiscretion."
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Kjella ( 173770 )
      "We were both in the photograph."

      "Oh, dear! That is very bad! Your Majesty has indeed committed an indiscretion."

      For better or worse, todays answer would be: "Photoshopped"
  • How hard would it be to put an expiration date on files? Say one or two years, and the file is deleted. There would also be archive files that would never delete. The original creator would decide on whether the file, or post, was archive or expiration. How many things have you posted online that really need to be here in two years?
  • I disagree (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jtogel ( 840879 ) <> on Thursday May 10, 2007 @09:12AM (#19065957) Homepage Journal
    I disagree with the conclusions of Mayer-Schönberger, though I agree with the main logic of his argument.

    I believe making all public archives "forgetful" would be (A) disastrous to research in history, philology, and linguistics (e.g.) and of course to political accountability, and (B) almost impossible, at least without a technological monoculture (e.g. Microsoft runs all the blogs).

    Instead, we have to adapt our culture to the inevatible presence of modern technology. This means that if someone once made racist, paedophiliac, hateful, misogynic, androgynic, stupid, schizofrenic etc. remarks, this should not in any way be held against them when they later in life want to become a politician, teacher, babysitter, policeman etc. We will simply have to assume that people can change and restrict ourselves to looking at their most recent behaviour and opinions.

    Changing our culture in such a way might sound impossible (and to some people undesirable), but I think it's far more possible (and desirable) than changing our technology in the way Mayer-Schönberger proposes.

    It is also possible that such a cultural change would be a natural consequence of information about everybody becoming available, rather than it making us all into politicians.
  • by Canthros ( 5769 ) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @09:14AM (#19065977)
    The good doctor is complaining because people might feel pressure to be more circumspect in the words and actions because their history may, at any time, return to haunt them. Is that really a bad thing, or is he just worried that all those years of being subscribed to Marxist Weekly (or whatever) may undermine his credibility as a professor of government?
  • I think the long time recording of everything will bring about a better understand of each other.
    I stick by all the posts I've ever made, some may have been incorrect or my opinion may have changed since I wrote them, but I stick by the fact that for that time in my life they were correct for me.

    With everbodys posts stored forever, everybody is going to have lots of posts that could be seen as bad by potental employers, partners etc. but because this will be something that effects everybody it won't be a pr
  • I am disturbed by the increasingly common practice of websites requiring you to create and save Security questions pertaining to various personal details. Were someone to save and collate the answers to such questions over time, they would have knowledge of quite a large knowledgebase of personal backgrounds - as though everyone put up a MySpace profile!

    Yes, I could and I have started to make up fake answer to such questions. But that means having to remember what the fake answers are. So it's no better
  • OK, it didn't forget, but it did crash and I lost everything. I forgot to make backups, so in turn the computer "forgot" all my data. The solution, don't back your old data, eventually it will be forgotten.
  • It is human nature to create tools that help us overcome a shortcoming. Not strong enough? Attach a chunk of rock/metal to a handle, an behold! the hammer.

    Computers (and incidentally AI) is just that - a tool. What good is it to make something that is "just like humans" (or indistinguishable from them, to paraphrase Turing)? Rather make something that is better than humans at one particular skill, e.g. remembering facts, or making objective decisions, or operate in dangerous situations.

  • Windows computers already do! They forget .dll files... they forget .ini files... they forget registry settings...
    They do it all the time too!
  • Interesting article, but some of his ideas don't add up for me.

    Firstly, if computers will remember everything we say, why will things be remembered out of context? If anything it will be harder in the future then ever before to take things out of context because everything about that time and that situation will also be remembered. No more situations where only one side of a conversation can be recounted because only one person saved their letters, instead we'll have perfect record of both sides of the disc
  • Will such massive databases make us all act like politicians?

    No, it will be worse. Because politicians will be the only ones that will have the influence to be able to "clean up" their records.

    Consider Bush. We know he was the black sheep of the Bush family. We know he used to drink a lot. It's likely he did drugs. And yet there is little evidence of this at all, and I bet any journalist that tries to dig up that kind of dirt on Bush will hit a brick wall. Perhaps literally.
  • Polluting the well (Score:5, Interesting)

    by HangingChad ( 677530 ) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @09:43AM (#19066435) Homepage

    Yes, it's true specific incidents can last seemingly forever on the internet. But when you look at the increase in available data, it's staggering. And that data is spread out around hundreds of servers in different formats. But the more data, the more junk data. Outdated, incorrect entries and, sometimes, forged entries.

    I manage a lot of data and have learned over the years how easy it is to pollute that well. Users are ingenious in their ability to get crap information in a system, no matter how tight you think your validation is. And importing data from an outside more of a nightmare. The ability of the internet to store information long term can also be used to hide information by clouding the waters.

    So, years ago I started polluting my personal online data well. Instead of one or two profiles, I'd have five or six, all different. Different addresses, phone numbers, cities, states even race and gender. Five turned into ten, turned into 15 or 20 and then I lost count. Started doing the same thing to my online resumes. Cloned the resume under a different name, address and phone number. Created new resumes with the name withheld or changed with many subtle variations, swapped out phone numbers, email addresses. Started masking personal information behind my own LLC. Turned into my own personal Wild Weasel. Which one of the clones is really me? Hard to tell.

    Haven't done that to my direct marketing profile and credit report...yet. But the day may come when I want to poison those wells. Don't need instant credit, pay cash for almost everything, including cars. You can play hell with your credit report by getting a camper or a boat and living on one of them for a while. I could park in my nephews back 40 for a couple months. Or live overseas, almost as good. Use PO boxes, change addresses so many times no one can keep up. Have one address for drivers license and vehicle registrations, a different one for online orders, another one for tax purposes. Use the wife's cell phone one week, mine the next. Change phone numbers twice a year. And, ironically, it's computers that give me the ability to keep up with all the different versions of myself.

    No matter how good you are at consolidating data, there's always going to be someone like me with the knowledge to crap it up and make you work at manual consolidation. Got a lot of spare time on your hands to figure that out? :)

  • by johnw ( 3725 ) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @09:47AM (#19066493)
    If you've never heard the graunching noise which a hard disc drive makes as the computer "forgets" your last week's work then you haven't been working with computers long.

Building translators is good clean fun. -- T. Cheatham