Tomorrow is Good: the importance of forgetting

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

“Hans has been keeping a diary for more than thirty years and finds comfort in it, and also takes pleasure in it. The other day he found his diary from ’47, read it and, despite the idea for a story or even a novel, it made him very sad. There were things in that past that he would rather have forgotten forever.”

In 2018, Mensje van Keulen published her diaries from 1977-1979 as ‘Precipitation of a marriage’ (Neerslag van een huwelijk). The fragment above can be found in the diary. Especially the last sentence is recognizable: done things don’t happen again, yet many of us regret things we did or didn’t do. Either we regret how things turned out, or that they happened to us in the first place.

The burden of memory is a recurring theme in philosophy. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote how man “cannot learn to forget and is always attached to the past. No matter how far, no matter how fast he walks, the chain follows.” The older you get, the heavier the baggage can weigh. But if you don’t forget, “it’s impossible to live.”

In the poetic film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ex-lovers have their memories erased after a break in love, so they can continue with a clean slate. In 2019, they would have to erase not only their own memory, but also the often ruthless memory of the internet, in order to break free from the past.

Hilarious, astounding or heartbreaking

At the end of the year, Facebook presents its users with their ‘Year in review’. A photo collage gives you an overview of the past year. In a much-discussed blog post from 2014, Eric Meyer talks about ‘inadvertent algorithmic cruelty’. In December 2014, he got to see his annual review. “Here’s what your year looked like!” – and then his smiling daughter Rebecca appeared. 2014 was the year she died. Meyer states that if a person would do this to the parents of a deceased child, we would morally condemn it. But “coming from code, it’s just unfortunate. These are hard, hard problems. It isn’t easy to programmatically figure out if a picture has a ton of Likes because it’s hilarious, astounding, or heartbreaking.” Facebook could give the user more control, for example by making it easier to disable annual overviews and push messages from memories.

The mobile Internet and the Internet of Things make ‘coveillance’ easier: keeping an eye on each other. With the camera in our smartphone, we take public and private photos and videos, often without thinking about whether that is desirable. Online we can drag others (uninvited) into the public domain, even if it’s really not funny.

Dani Mathers, an American model, saw an older lady showering in the dressing room of the sports club, took a picture of the naked woman and swung it on Snapchat with the words: ‘If I can’t unsee this then you can’t either‘. The photo was shared en masse and appeared on international news websites. Mathers was convicted for it, but the woman in the picture has to live with the fact that the picture will not disappear from the internet.

A victim of the terrorist attacks of 22 March 2016 in Zaventem airport explained how, while he was bleeding on the ground, bystanders took pictures of him: “I don’t understand why everyone takes pictures while people are suffering. I myself would never do that. ‘No pictures please’, I eventually yelled. That’s not normal, is it?” Sometimes looking seems to have taken the place of thinking.

The right to noise

In ‘Long time coming’ Bruce Springsteen sings about his children: “Well if I had one wish in this god forsaken world, kids / It’d be that your mistakes would be your own.” In the past, only children of distinguished families grew up in front of cameras. In the meantime, there are many image archives of children and young people, which increases the chance that stupidities are registered.

“Once a dustbin, history becomes a freezer,” says Anita Allen. Moreover, you don’t know on which servers data, photos or videos of yours are kept that can be ‘defrosted’ later on. Examples of this are nude photographs and revenge pornography, which may still appear online years later.

In 2007, researchers Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchin argued in favour of programming an ‘ethics of forgetting’ in the design. For example, by deliberately making the flawless memory of technology less perfect, or at least by giving users that option. This can be done by erasing certain data, by making it blurred or by adding noise to the data. Such a deliberate form of ‘amnesia’ can relieve people of a burden by loosening the past. Forgetting is an important value in an information society. “The right to erasure” is already part of GDPR. The right to noise can easily be added to that.

Of course, not all of the problems described above require a technological solution. We need more etiquette when it comes to (unsolicited) filming, monitoring and photography. A better world also starts with a centuries-old golden rule: ‘Don’t do to someone else what you don’t want to be done to yourself’.

About this column:

In a weekly column, alternately written by Eveline van Zeeland, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels, Maarten Steinbuch, Mary Fiers, Carlo van de Weijer, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous episodes.

Tomorrow is Good: Tracking the Future

Purdue University, Pixabay

“We know where each student is anytime – which is virtually all the time – their mobile devices are connected to our WIFI network. When they enter their dorm, or dining court, or recreational facility, they swipe in, and a machine captures the time and place.”

At Purdue University, every student is tracked with a system called ‘Academic Forecast‘. In 2018, Rector Mitch Daniels wrote an op-ed about it in The Washington Post; the fragment above is from this piece.

Not only data from students’ files, such as grades and the number of log-ins in the course management system, are collected, but also where they are located on campus, such as in the campus gym or in one of the dining facilities. Next, correlations are searched for. The data is also compared with data of successful students from previous years. Daniels writes: “Does the data say that too many days away from campus, or too many absences from class, or too much in-class browsing of websites unrelated to the course, or too few visits to the gym, correlates with lower grades? Does eating meals with the same people day after day appear to help scholastic performance? If so, shouldn’t we bring this to the students’ attention, for their own good?”

Spurious Correlations

The Spurious Correlations website is full of correlations. The more mozzarella is eaten in the US, the more civil engineering doctorates are awarded. And the more films Nicolas Cage appears in, the more people drown by falling into a swimming pool. Which shouldn’t be a reason to stay away from swimming pools when a new film with Cage is premiering. Because: correlation is not causation. Still, students are given a ‘nudge’ based on correlations if their behaviour needs to be adjusted. ‘For their own good’, says rector Daniels. But is it? Control, and possibly even bad science, is presented as ‘care’.

Control, and possibly even bad science, is presented as ‘care’.

‘Academic Forecast’ is sold under the heading of ‘success’. The system “uses that information to show you where you stand on each behaviour, so you can see whether you are on track to be a successful student.” (academicforecast.org). What does that mean, success? To graduate as soon as possible? Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who are considered very successful by many people, were all drop-outs. And if the number of visits to the sports club guarantees academic success, I personify academic failure. The system only allows a narrow view of success. Shouldn’t a successful student also think critically and autonomously?

The lost father

Even without a ‘nudge’, students have to learn how to overcome problems. And learn to pay for the consequences of certain behaviour. In Herman de Coninck’s poem ‘Parabel van de verloren vader‘ (Parable of the Lost Father), the father is saddened to see how his son constantly expresses other people’s opinions. His paternal advice is: “Your own life, start with your damned own life, / and come back in ten years’ time with sadness / instead of righteousness, for example after one or two marriages”. Like Immanuel Kant stated: becoming an adult is “to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance”. The road to autonomy, resilience and adulthood is a winding road of trial and error that you can’t just show in excel sheets. The current urge for measurement and efficiency is diametrically opposed to space and giving trust, as the father showed in the poem.

The road to autonomy, resilience and adulthood is a winding road of trial and error that you can’t just show in excel sheets.

What does Academic Forecast do with the autonomy of young adults in a generation that is often already closely tracked by their parents? The system does not even allow for an opt-out: the data are collected anyway. You can only choose not to see your own data, and therefore not to compare it with that of all the others. The only opt-out you get is less competition with others.

Purdue is an engineering university. The fact that future engineers are already accustomed to monitoring worries me. Unless they use their technological ingenuity and autonomy to find ways to circumvent the system. In that case, I would have trust in it.

About this column:

In a weekly column, alternately written by Eveline van Zeeland, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels, Maarten Steinbuch, Mary Fiers, Carlo van de Weijer, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous episodes.