Delete | Volatile Data Please


“In the digital age, everything we say, do and write is preserved forever, including antics most would rather forget”

Fascinating piece in today’s Independent on the problem of the net never forgetting. So much of what we do is trackable online now, and as more RF devices are linked in to gadgets, vehicles – our bodies even – we will be churning out huge amounts of data via our searches, purchases and movements which harvesters like Google and Microsoft will manipulate.

One story from the article stood out:

In 2006, on his way to pick up a friend from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, [Feldmar – a well-respected Canadian psychotherapist] tried to cross the US/Canadian border, as he had done over 100 times before. This time, however, a border guard queried an internet search engine for “Feldmar”. Out popped an article Feldmar had written for an interdisciplinary journal in 2001, in which he mentioned that he had taken LSD in the 1960s. Feldmar was held for four hours, fingerprinted and, after signing a statement that he had taken drugs almost four decades ago, was barred from further entry into the United States.

The article goes on to recommend that files that we create have a ‘sell by date’ just as food does – after this date it will be deleted. I’d go further – what I really want is a system that allows me to designate anything as ‘volatile.’ In this way certain emails – the pointless quick information ones – would just delete themselves after a certain period. Quick memos I’ve written on my phone for that day will not be synched and stored in perpetuity on my Mac.

With the stupid amounts of bytes we are generating daily – and the server farms we are having to build to store them – volatility is not just sensible data management, but an environmental necessity too.

We evolved brains that forget for good reason. We’d do well not to forget that.


5 responses to “Delete | Volatile Data Please”

  1. took me while to find it again, but I saw this not too long ago – and a functioning prototype of it used to be present on the site – it allowed copy and paste into facebook, etc, although the implementation isn’t exactly fluid. looks like they’ve got a firefox plugin too..

  2. Once something is out, it’s out. If you send an email, you forfeit control of its content. It gets copied to your smtp server then copied to the recipient’s pop server. Then copied to their computer.

    The same goes for anything on the internet. It gets copied everywhere.

    DRM is useless for this. Any other technology, software or hardware, is useless. If the data is to be readable at the end, it needs to eventually become plain text (or audio or video or whatever). So anybody can just photograph it or record it, then republish it. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    As for the problems that arise, we’ll just have to deal with them – in non-technologically based ways.

    I really don’t think some of these things will remain problems for long.

    We are entering a culture of increased openness, where what was once private (the photos of the drunk student and so on) is becoming publicly available. This will make people more cautious about what they put online. But more importantly, on the whole, people’s attitudes to these things will change and society will adjust.

    Feldmar’s story might just be an anomaly linked to this moment in time. In time maybe the USA’s policymakers will have the sense to put “forgetting” into law, e.g. certain activities like drug use are overlooked after a certain time. Everybody loses if a respected psychotherapist cannot travel to USA for stupid irrelevant reasons. (It’s no consolation to Feldmar now I know.) Similarly, they just lost a qualified teacher for stupid reasons totally unrelated to ability.

    Students like a drink. Back in the 1960s quite a few people took LSD. We all know these things. Different parts of our society are taking time to catch up, but they will around now. Or soon. I mean, check out this video about Obama’s use of cannabis. I’m looking forward to a more honest society!

    Deletion can’t be the answer because we would lose the benefit of these experiences. The web page with Feldmar’s LSD experiences is a piece of human knowledge. In the future this can become MORE valuable as a single piece of knowledge (in unforeseen ways) and also with related pieces of knowledge, in aggregate (in massively unforeseen ways). The trend is towards finding ways of filtering and analysing this information for everyone’s benefit.

    Cheers for sharing the link!

  3. I totally agree – a more open society awaits. But what worries me more is the huge pile of completely useless data we are going to be backing up for ever. The emails that say ‘Thanks!’ when we’ve replied to people. The useless stuff. The really useless stuff that not even Pepys would find interesting. That should be volatile. It should just self-delete. And save our children from having to build ever-bigger server farms full of total crap.

  4. its said god casts our sins as far as the east is from the west and remembers them no more but maybe he just stores them on an unused server somewhere in his warehouse..

  5. Servers are a very efficient and sustainable way of storing text data, compared with any human-made technology that’s come before. Before looking at emails, I’d look at dealing with the glut of hi-res images and video. Even before that I’d look at the masses of redundant printed material in books and newspapers that we continue to crap out.