At the closing SSP conference plenary, Food Fight in the Scholarly Kitchen, I dropped the “f-bomb.” I call it the f-bomb because FTC rules prohibit me from using the real expletive, but the readers will know what I mean, and listeners in that session will remember what I said.
In the context of the question (about watchdog journalism) and my response (about taking risks as a blogger even though it might result in a frivolous lawsuit), the use of the “f-bomb” was, at the time, rather benign. And yet, I have regrets.
My regrets are not founded in the memories of my fellow panelists or even in those of the audience participants. Most of them will ultimately forget the remark, or more likely, not take the remark as being offensive. In the context of the presentation, it was a rather normal event.
My regrets lay in the fact that the session was recorded for future posterity. In a few weeks, the recording will show up on the SSP website. It will be downloaded by robot software crawling the web, indexed and tagged with the participant names, and cached on multiple servers worldwide, thus ensuring that deletion of the original file does not hinder the preservation of the f-word remark.
What went on in San Francisco will not remain in San Francisco.
Thanks to the persistent memory of Google and other networked search and storage devices, I will carry that f-bomb into the future. It will become part of my professional identity, and more importantly, a potential liability. [In comparison, events that took place at the Fastiggi reception on Friday night remain in San Francisco, with the exception of a few carefully staged photographs].
Humans are wired to forget: the Web is wired to remember. We have changed the default from forgetting to persistent memory.
This is the premise of the book, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age” by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (Princeton University Press, 2009). Mayer-Schönberger argues that forgetting fulfills important societal functions. As the details and consequences of our past mistakes fade and become obscured in the memories of those around us, forgetting allows for individuals to reinvent themselves and move on.
But this is not an argument that we often hear.
We are told to save everything that is digital — all of our email, documents and memos (however mundane) — in the rare case that we would need to go back and retrieve some piece of old information. Because storage is cheap, it costs us more in time and energy to purge old documents than it’s worth. The default is to save everything.
Technology has made us all into compulsive hoarders. We have become the hermit living in a one-bedroom apartment stuffed with every letter ever received and old issues of the New York Times piled up high into columns allowing only a thin canyon of passage to the kitchen sink and another to the bed.
And yet, there is a big difference. When that pack rat moves out of the cramped and condemned apartment, relatives come in and clean house, transferring most items into the dumpster and saving a few mementos for posterity. If the pack rat has no living relatives, the building superintendent is stuck with the chore of cleaning house. Items will be relegated to the dustbin of history because physical space is not cheap like digital space.
The Internet does not clean house. Even when websites close shop and lose their domain name, there is likely a digital copy sitting on the virtual shelves of Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive. Even when we want to purge our past, it may not be possible.
I like going to conferences like SSP precisely for the reason that the majority of the communication among peers takes place informally, in a non-seated position, without the harsh glare of a screen, disconnected from the Internet, and (after 5pm) with a drink in one’s hand. These meetings enable us to say things that we dare not say in email or on a public blog. If, by accident, the line of public decorum has been crossed we can be thankful that listeners understand the context (“He was drunk, and come to think of it, I was too!”) and that these events will gradually fade in the minds of colleagues.
“If we had to worry that any information about us would be remembered for longer than we live, would we still express our views on matters of trivial gossip, share personal experiences, make various political comments, or would we self-censor? The chilling effect of perfect memory alters our behavior” (Mayer-Schönberger, p.5)
We like to think that conferences are doing non-participants a favor when they record and post their events. We forget that by doing so, we may be harming the very reason why we spend enormous amounts of time and money traveling to conferences, which is, to allow for the kind of open and earnest dialogue that is becoming more difficult to do online.
What went on in San Francisco should stay in San Francisco, the occasional f-bomb included.