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<nettime> The Right to Remember: A Speculative Community Informatics App
michael gurstein on Sat, 12 Jul 2014 10:15:49 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Right to Remember: A Speculative Community Informatics Approach to "the Right to Be Forgotten"

With links and comments:



The Right to Remember: A Speculative Community Informatics Approach to "the
Right to Be Forgotten" 

Michael Gurstein

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) in a recent and widely discussed
decision is requiring Google to consider individuals' requests to remove
links that they say infringe on their privacy. Much of the subsequent
analysis and commentary has focused on what this means from the perspective
of Google's activities as the de facto provider of what has become the
global collective memory-both pro and con. Some are arguing that this is a
good thing and that individuals (and companies?) have the right to have
certain things they would prefer to not be available in casual searches
online "forgotten" (suppressed). Others argue the opposite, i.e. that this
is a slippery slope and without clear guidelines it is not clear where this
right to "forget" will stop and the public's "right to know" about an
individual's (or corporate's) history will begin.

I think it is well to reflect a bit on the (likely) origins of memory
(Adaptive Memory) and its uses and what that might tell us about memory and
forgetting in a technology enabled world.

Memory presumably developed as a survival mechanism providing our
pre-history ancestors with the means to capture knowledge and retain it for
re-use in other times and places as a basis for survival-remembering what
foods made them sick and which did not, which paths led to new and
productive hunting grounds and which ones led into dead ends and potential
traps from wild animals or antagonistic neighbours.

But of course as we know, memory is a two edged sword-on the one hand it can
help in survival by directing current action but it can also be destructive
by misdirecting current action and understanding. Knowing that a particular
path leads across a river in one season and into an unfordable stream in
another is an equally necessary survival tool. Knowing that a plant is
poisonous when fresh, but medicinal when dried and mixed with another plant
becomes the stock in trade of the healer and the source of his or her status
in the tribe.

But in these contexts memory was specific and for the most part physically
and locationally constrained. Our ancestors had knowledge about their
circumstances and their environments, about their fellow tribe members and
occasionally the members of neighboring tribes but not much memory or
knowledge beyond that.

In practice memory and the knowledge that it represented and provided was a
communal/collective resource-something shared within the community, passed
on from within community and made practical and the basis of action (or
reaction) within the community. Only very occasionally as when tribes began
to develop more elaborate and wide ranging governance structures and trading
networks would memory go much beyond the community, the local, the tribe.
And even there the memory or knowledge would be constrained through its need
to be passed along from elder to elder, trader to trader.

The capacity to store memory in the form of writing to a degree liberated
memory from its severe locational and temporal constraints by allowing
memories stored in written form to be moved by means of some physical
storage medium (stone, clay, ultimately paper) from one location to another
and over time. But this of course, also had certain constraints of physical
degradation as the storage medium would erode or decay; and from the simple
cost in energy and wealth of storing memories in this form, moving the
medium from place to place and then of physically accessing/searching the
medium for the required information.

But all of these limitations of course, have now been overcome with digital
memory, digital storage, Internet access and so on. And as a collective
resource for helping all of us as humanity to respond effectively to our
many challenges this is almost certainly a huge and highly desirable step

However, as well, the dark side of this is the same as the bright side with
all such information/memories being available anytime, anywhere and with
effectively no or almost no cost to access, leaving us as individuals and as
societies vulnerable to the misuse of infinite memory in the same way as we
are the beneficiaries (e.g. what Snowden showed about the NSA's drive for
"total information awareness").

What is being overlooked however, in this current discussion is the original
functions and benefits of memory which as already noted were anchored in the
actions and specific contexts of the local, of communities where this
knowledge could and was put into effective action and where memories if
destructive would quickly be erased from the collective pool.

I should premise what I am about to present by indicating that I have no
idea if or whether there is a practical means for implementation.  However,
given the commitment of the Community Informatics community in it's
Declaration of an Internet for the Common Good (and following Snowden's
revelations substantial elements of the broader ICT/informatics community)
towards a decentralized Internet where control over information and even
infrastructure resides in decentralized communities rather than in highly
centralized corporate or government controlled repositories, perhaps it is
worth thinking about/discussing.

The meaning and usefulness (or counter-usefulness as in negative effects) of
memories are based in particular contexts. The ownership of those memories
and the bringing into effectiveness of certain memories through time is
equally anchored in specific contexts and their attendant, owner
communities. That is, the contexts where memories gain value and
significance as the basis for action are in fact based in or derived from
the communities of those for whom these contexts are significant and who in
some sense "own" or populate or invigorate those contexts. 

Similarly the fear or expectation of a negative consequence from a "memory"
is based in these contexts and ultimately resides with the communities who
"own" these contexts. The fear of a negative consequence of a memory
concerning a bankruptcy or a mild youthful indiscretion or a negative
assessment by one's (at the time) peers is a fear of how the
context/community will respond to this information should it re-appear or be
brought to conscious awareness/visibility.

And equally, the significance of this information for current actions within
that context i.e. whether such information is of current value such as to
guide current action is based on current understandings within those
contexts or communities. Some information clearly is dated and should be
"forgotten" while other information does or at least could have current
significance within a particular context (an early conviction for child
molestation for example).

Of course, many of these current significant contexts/communities are
virtual - based on online connections rather than physically embodied ones
(issues concerning plagiarism within academic or journalistic contexts for

The European Court has now rendered a verdict that under some circumstances
there is a "right to be forgotten" but the Court did not provide direction
as to how this right was to be implemented and simply handed the problem
back to the now omnipresent memory platform/enabler Google to figure this
out. The result has been the somewhat chaotic situation which now prevails
with many arguing that there is an equal right to have access to full
information/"free expression" as there is the right to be forgotten.

But perhaps one way out of this dilemma is to begin a process of thinking
through the particulars of the various contexts/communities of the various
types of memories whose access is enabled by Google and empowering these to
determine within their contexts what information needs to be remembered and
what information can be allowed to be forgotten. (Giving communities this
responsibility rather than corporations or institutions should go some way
to ensure that those acts and events which those in authority on occasion
will go to some lengths to ensure are "forgotten" in fact, are retained as
"memories"-including the holocaust(s), acts of genocide against minorities,
the abuses of children and others.)

Precisely how this might be accomplished I'm unclear since Google is
required to respond to the particular in the form of individual requests
(and has further enabled this process through developing an individual
request based set of procedures) however, perhaps a rethinking of these
processes focusing less on the individual or perhaps using the individual as
a means to identify the broader and more general issues and then turning the
matter of developing rules and procedures over to frameworks reflecting
these larger contexts/communities.

However, I am certain that having communities determine what needs to be
remembered and what can allowed to be forgotten makes rather more sense and
is more in keeping with the history of memory and the opportunities and
value that memory provides us with, than turning those decisions over to
anonymous and faceless Google administrators.

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