Why the internet needs a more selective memory
The web was supposed to free our minds: instead, it has loaded us down with timeline trivia. No wonder self-destructing communication services have sprung up
Not so long ago, I took a year out with my small children and put most of my belongings into storage. When my time was up, I found myself back in storage staring at a pile of possessions that felt something like Rachel Whiteread's House, but with little idea what it included. The only thing I'd actually missed was my Collins guide to snakes, which for various reasons is handier than the internet.
Accumulation is a familiar tale; few of us in the privileged west don't have an attic, garage or spare room stuffed with things we can't admit we don't need. And the problem now extends to our digital lives, equally stuffed with things we've long since forgotten about, have duplicated in some form or simply don't have the time to revisit.
Facebook is just one culprit subtly reinforcing the document-it-all mentality of the current state of the web. Just last week, the company spent a portentous 90 minutes briefing the press about a news feed tweak that will bump "important" but unread older posts to the top of the feed. Given that Facebook claims that 700 million people read its news feed every day, the impact of tweaks at this scale can't be dismissed. But, like every other advertiser-driven site, is the goal of pulling more users into more pages really the most sophisticated way forward?
This bloated, unmanageable web of now, overloaded with more than we can read, or share, or like, is unsustainable. Facebook's team of 30 or so news feed engineers would argue that their powerful rankings are constantly improving the search for "interestingness", but the site's synthetic social, faux friendship, distorted reflection of real life does not and cannot document all the nuance of what truly matters to us. Where's the algorithm, or the app, that can meaningfully represent and distil life online and off, that can make sense of the complex constellation of our real lives?
Beyond a more sophisticated way of sorting this digital detritus, there is increasing promise in the growth of transient technology. In social networking, the app Snapchat has been lazily labelled a sexting app for teenagers, but the true use pattern is far more significant. Teens are sending photos and video of themselves that self-destruct after a few seconds – digital natives, it seems, aren't conditioned to cling and record every scrap of themselves. This is hugely significant in the evolution of the social web, a generation looking for liberation from unflattering search results, from parental scrutiny, from the precious, preening portfolios of Tumblr. Snap it, share it, forget it.
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger of Oxford University's internet institute has written compellingly of the human value of forgetting, of past events being allowed to fade with time so that we can concentrate on the present moment. Most of the internet's instant history does not allow for that; every fact, every conversation, every memory is a heartbeat away, with all the pain of a break-up email or the uncompromising recklessness of a drunken photo.
Being forgettable is as much a selling point as being undetectable online. While Snapchat's ephemeral nature is already being challenged by apps designed to save its content, auto-destruct is a key selling point of services such as Wickr and Gryphn (vowels seemingly being unavailable at time of naming). Gryphn sends secure text messages that can be set to self-destruct, and Wickr can also encrypt photos, video and audio using, it claims, "military-grade technology"; Mission: Impossible fans will enjoy watching their messages self-destruct.
For added bite, Wickr's co-founder Nico Sell told a reporter at the Black Hat hackers' convention last week that it had been approached by the FBI and asked for a back door into its data. "We said no," Sell said emphatically.
Encrypt it and then delete it. That's a powerful recipe for privacy and protection, though Wikr's claim does need further scrutiny, given that its founders including a former defence contractor and forensics investigator.
"Our private communications, by default, should be untraceable," Sell told the New York Times last year. "Right now, society functions the other way around."
This hunger for true privacy represents a way of living with a web that is more human, with the protections that private real-world conversations afford. For transience, too, a more gentle drift, fade and flux of our digital ephemera are attractive as a way of managing our currently unmanageable burden of data. Software should be freeing us up, not weighing us down. The web promised to free our cognitive load, as author Clay Shirky was wont to remark, opening up higher opportunities. The reverse has happened and now we are slaves to big data we are helping create.
I once, through bad luck and incompetence, lost everything on my personal hard drive and two backups. I was devastated at the time, the digital equivalent of losing my Rachel Whiteread everything in that storage centre. But I missed nothing from it at all and now I wonder what was even in those 30GB. Now I'm more ruthless about what I choose to keep and selectively store the important stuff in the cloud. But we need the software to do this sifting, sorting and suggesting for us. Internet, are you listening?