Forget Me, Forget Me Not
What Should the Internet Remember?
There was a time before search engines. There was even an internet before search engines, where the only way to find a webpage was to transcribe its precise URL. Writing on that internet was a bit like whispering to yourself in a heavy metal club; your voice utterly indistinguishable from the din. And it was in this disinhibiting cacophony that many of us came to possess our formative notions of what the internet was: just the internet, we called it; only the internet. We didn’t realise then that everything was going to become indexed, searchable. And even when it happened, it took us a while recognise the implications: that at any moment the music could stop and you’d be screaming loudly into the silence, with everyone else staring at you.
When the internet became searchable, each of us became a keyword and a little array of “search results” began following us around. This flotsam and jetsam of a lived-life; these trimmings and clippings of a person that should by all rights scatter to the wind, but instead get caught in this net. And there, since it’s all there is, these fragments pretend to say something significant about us. They queue up, in royal blue testimony, on someone else’s desktop: some new squeeze, or old nemesis, or future employer.
The burden of this digital memory has been differently felt. If you are working in HR in Bloemfontein and your name happens to be “Michael Jackson” or something, then you can live forever free of the pound of flesh SEO offers, and the pound it takes away. But after a brief process of elimination, many of us are easily found. So what’s there? What made its way online? What are you forced to remember about yourself, and what is everyone else made to remember about you?
It might be something you’re proud of or fine with, in which case remembering isn’t such an ordeal, but for many people it’s something they could really do without. It needn’t be some great disgrace or takedown (though we’ve seen plenty of those). Perhaps it’s just something you said once that you no longer believe; or an old mode that you used to think was hip—some cruel snarkiness of youth—which you now recall with dismay. These are the sorts of transformations, the waxing and waning of self, that we should be permitted ad infinitum, but which we now often feel caught and exposed in.
Come to think of it, it would have been nice to be consulted before these things got “indexed” in the first place. But given that we weren’t, some people have wondered whether we can at least ask for them to be de-indexed? What more poetic legislation has been proposed, in this life, than “the right to be forgotten”? It captures something of the elemental contradiction at the heart of being alive: the desire to be seen and acknowledged, and the simultaneous desire to retreat and disappear. Or as the poet Stephen Dunn put it: “After the power to choose, a man wants the power to erase.”
In 1998 a Spanish man, Mario Costeja González, sold a property to pay a debt. The sale was recorded in a few lines in a local newspaper, and in the normal course of events it would have been soon forgotten. As it was, however, the newspaper put its archive online, and from then on every search of his name returned this record. By 2014, it had been sixteen years of being defined by the same moment, and in that year Mario Costeja González took Google to court, and perhaps even to his own amazement: he won.
The subsequent ruling gave EU citizens the power to delist results which are deemed "inadequate or irrelevant"; an expression of “the right to silence on past events in life that are no longer occurring.” But the ruling did something else too: it allowed us to imagine, for a moment, that our new reality might be open to revision. It’s an important realisation, and one we should hold onto. Because as we’re increasingly discovering, the internet is made for beings that we are not: beings who value and recognise the truth; who are naturally fair and just; who don’t change or regret. We still need to retrofit it to accommodate us as we actually are.
Now a little insolvency doesn’t sound too bad to me; it’s nothing I would’ve bothered the European Court of Justice about. But isn’t that just the thing? That our humiliations should be so idiosyncratic? It’s not for me to decide what you can live with: we are each the global authority on our own sleepless nights. And in the five years since the ruling, the overwhelming number of requests have come not from politicians or pubic figures trying to suppress great scandals, but from private citizens (if such a thing still exists) trying to rid themselves of mentions on social media pages.
The ruling only applies in the EU though, unlike the internet itself, so anyone searching from another territory would still see all the results. Truly effective forgetting would require legal cooperation on a scale that doesn’t exist yet, and might never. And there is, of course, good reason that one country shouldn’t be able to determine what the rest of the world can find on Google; the potential for abuse and censorship is enormous. Similar qualms bedevil the ruling even in its present limited state. It’s one thing to forget by accident, the way we’ve been doing it for millennia, and it’s quite another to forget on purpose; knowing full well what might be lost in the process. For some people it seems patent that we should always err on the side of remembering. After all, the right to be forgotten conflicts with the right to know, and inevitably people will seek to suppress information that is of serious importance and enduring public interest. What will all the perverts and crooks and racists and corrupt politicians and negligent professionals try to hide? Which allegations are going to be allowed to stand, and which will be made to disappear? For the time being, it’s been left for Big Tech to decide how to balance this conflict; Google has so far refused over half of the 3.2 million URLs that it’s received for delisting.
But if something is actually important to remember, we really ought to keep it elsewhere. The internet hates to forget anything you want it to, but it will forget everything else. It is a corrupted mesh of broken links, dead ends, deleted sites, decay. The average web page lasts only 100 days. It will forget things of great value, aesthetic accomplishment, historical importance and moral significance. Nothing prevents it from doing so; no law or statute. And everything that seems so immutable upon it now—the global newspapers and the social media giants—are all just one fated bankruptcy, merger or redesign away from nonexistence. Or as the empty link often reads: “Oops, there’s nothing here.”
From this vantage, far from being a steel trap for all our greatest embarrassments, the web is actually catastrophically ephemeral: it is a perpetual now, with no trace of what it’s been in other moments; of the great experiments of human comedy, tragedy, absurdity and cruelty that it’s hosted over the decades. Increasingly the work of our whole civilization is taking place on a medium that is disintegrating beneath our fingertips. Depending on your relationship to oblivion, the whole thing can be quite distressing.
Among the distressed are web preservationists, who are trying to find ways to hold onto and record the digital era so that future generations can try unpick the significance of “blinking white guy,” among other things. The American Library of Congress valiantly attempted to archive every tweet ever written (before giving up in 2017), while the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University is trying to “document the digital footprint” of #MeToo. But the biggest of these efforts at remembering is the Internet Archive, which roams the web saving pages over time. Using their Wayback Machine you can visit—in a limited capacity—the internet of 1996, 2004, last week. You can see the earliest websites of massive brands like Apple and Reebok; all looking like a continuing education project undertaken by your great aunt. Remember the internet of the Y2K panic? Remember MySpace at its prime? Well, the Archive does. Its stated ambition is to record all of the public internet, and allow you to see not only what it is now, but also what it has been.
But the Internet Archive is still patchy and largely incomplete. While there are some sites it saves regularly most of them go un-archived for months or years, and even then they’re often corrupted or only partially navigable. What’s more: it isn’t keyword searchable, so you can only find the specific URL you’re looking for. In this respect it resembles the early internet, and we can still pretend to ourselves that what we have removed or deleted has actually gone away; or that our “disappearing” posts actually disappear.
But it’s easy to see the way things are going: that archiving efforts will become ever more comprehensive—that everything will be held onto— and that they’ll eventually become searchable too. “We hope to implement a full text search engine at some point in the future,” the Archive cheerily announces on their FAQ page. Um… what? Excellent news for future scholars, et cetera, but imagine being Googled not only on the whole internet, but also on everything that the internet has ever been? Who knows what will lurch up from the deep? Every momentary data breach or dating profile or legal filing or reddit thread or leaked chat or hacked photo or deleted post; all your social media sites before you decided to go private. Not to mention all the “personal data” we keep waiving our rights to, which we can’t quite bring ourselves to worry about. Well, we might find ourselves worrying sometime soon.
The human mind knows how to prioritise, and it knows how to forget. It is one of its central functions. It takes the ceaseless light and noise of sensory input, all that has been said and received over the years, and it extracts an astonishingly simple thread: this, it says, is what matters now. Like so, almost everything falls away. We lose many beautiful things in this process, no doubt, but we also gain a lot: we gain the ability to live better in the present; to move past heartbreak, grief, and shame; to develop and change without apology or fear of contradiction. And we are able to grant a special significance to that which is remembered and retained; in this sense, the value of remembering actually relies on most things being forgotten.
There is a right amount to remember and a right amount to forget: about yourself, each other, your history. In general, we have erred on the side of remembering too little. For the first time, in some of these realms, we are in danger of remembering too much. What’s worse: we are remembering for all the wrong reasons. We are remembering for no reason at all.
If we are going to make memory so powerful—and it will soon be more powerful than ever— then we are also going to have to empower forgetting. We are going to have to recognise the crucial role that forgetting, and being forgotten, plays for each of us. To find ways for the vast collective memory that we are creating to be kinder to us. We are easy to diminish, and even to destroy; nowadays it’s a moment’s work. The lifetime’s work is finding some way, despite the odds, of making us worth honouring. To consider our small battles and idiosyncratic mortifications sacrosanct. To recognise that the little we are is all that we are, and that it is something we are entitled to care about and to protect.
A version of this essay was first published in September 2019 in The Business Day.