A court in the EU has recently upheld the complaint of a man who said that the Google hits associated with his name should be taken down, on the grounds that they were no longer relevant to his life. As somebody with a very distinctive name, I applaud this decision. When you Google me, there is no doubt who you’re getting information about. I’m grateful that none of my stupid mistakes in life have ended up as an electronic record somewhere. But if they ever did, there would be no way for me to avoid having them easily accessible to everybody in my vicinity with a smartphone, for the rest of my life.
Up until the advent of the World Wide Web, an ineradicable reality of life was the erosion of our old decisions, thoughts and in essence, selves. Like a snake’s former skin, they fell away, to be replaced by who we were becoming in the present. We have always had to take responsibility for our actions, but that’s not the same as being pursued by a perfect and ever present and ambiently available record of them, forever. Yet this is the future that technology is taking us in, and those of use who aren’t running huge Silicon Valley companies don’t have any say in the matter.
As Marshall McLuhan said in the 1960s (and as I quoted back in 2011):
“The future will be an electrically computerized dossier bank – that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes’.”
How he could’ve seen this so early on I don’t know. His gift of prophecy is eerie sometimes. McLuhan was a traditional Catholic, and for him the erasure of earthly mistakes through the mechanism of divine forgiveness was an important part of living a full life. Along with forgiveness came the ability to atone for and move on from one’s mistakes. Perhaps he felt there was something more than a little Luciferean about a world where that process was hampered by technology.
The pain of having all our mistakes remembered forever is a symptom of what we used to call information overload, but it’s not a symptom that anybody saw coming. We all knew we were going to have trouble organizing increasingly massive amounts of information usefully so it could become a basis for our decisions. We didn’t know that forgetting some of that information was an essential part of the process.
Predictably, Google’s response to the EU’s ruling is to call it “anti-business,” and their zombie objection has been echoed by the Financial Times. Here’s the first sentence of what is supposed to be an objective article on the topic (at least I assume so, since it was their lead news piece and not in their Op-Ed section):
A landmark “right to be forgotten” ruling against Google in Europe risks damaging the next generation of internet start-ups and strengthening the hand of repressive governments looking to restrict online communications, Larry Page, the search company’s chief executive officer, has warned.”
You could be forgiven for reading that first sentence and internalizing it as the main take-away on the issue, rather than the opinion of Google’s co-founder. The FT really is a bit much, sometimes. Their piece doesn’t even make the nod to the idea that technology should serve people and not just businesses or the ideology of innovation at all costs.
Here’s a much more thoughtful report on the “right to be forgotten,” from TIME’s incomparable Lev Grossman. In the piece, he says: “Just because something is technologically feasible, and part of a business plan, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.”
Amen to that.