Information decay

Last week, I went to BayFF, an EFF-sponsored roundtable discussion on bloggers’ rights. It wasn’t as interesting as I’d hoped it would be, given the caliber of discussion participants, but that was partially due to uninteresting questions being asked (since I didn’t come up with an interesting question myself, I can’t really censure the rest of the audience though).

There was one part of the discussion that intrigued me. One of the panelists (I think it was Mary Hodder) commented that “information doesn’t age very well online”, referring to the problem that everything we put on the net stays there forever. Somebody else (Dan Gillmor?) made the comment that it’ll be interesting when we get to the point in 20 years when people who wrote blogs when they were teenagers are running for public office – we will have to learn to forgive youthful indiscretions (or at least bad grammar). Apparently, Esther Dyson had spoken the previous weekend and commented that we need to have a statute of limitations for things online, such that after a certain number of years, online information would start to decay, so that people can let the past go.

I’m of mixed feelings about this. I think it’s good to let the past go. But, on the other hand, it’s nice to have a full record of what I did – I certainly want a copy of it, even if nobody else does. I mean, yes, if you go look online, you’ll find the hundred-plus posts of mine to But that’s part of who I am. It doesn’t embarrass me. Well, okay, maybe it would a little in a work context. But that doesn’t mean I want it erased from the net. I like being able to go back and page through those old discussions. I suppose if an information decay were instituted, I could save such things before they went away, but I don’t mind having it public.

I think what we really need is for people to learn forgiveness, and to understand that everybody says regrettable things. Because so much of our lives are matters of public record now, from everything we’ve ever posted online, to meetings we’ve attended, it’s too easy to find contradictions in the things that people say. Just looking around my web page, you can find all sorts of stupid things I’ve said, because the web page has been accreting detritus for over ten years now. I keep on adding stuff to it, but never deleting anything, so you can read some of my poorly written, uninformed ramblings from long ago, or check out things related to cyberspace that I thought were neat from that time.

I think it would also do good things for our society as a whole to learn forgiveness, especially in the realm of politics. People do stupid things occasionally. If we only want to elect candidates who have never contradicted themselves and never said anything stupid, we get what we deserve. I think we would do better to prefer a candidate that can change their mind and learn from their mistakes, or a candidate who may occasionally say stupid things because they’re actually interested in a discussion of different possibilities.

I think that as we move into the world where more and more of our behavior is able to be tracked online, through blogs and other mechanisms, more people will learn the art of forgiveness as they are confronted with evidence of their own inconsistency and poorly thought out comments. And I think our society would benefit from that process. So I guess I’m against the idea of information decay, and for the idea of personality growth instead, utopian as that may be. Basically, technical hacks to circumvent human nature have never worked for me as a programmer, so I don’t see why they’d work in this case.

Anyway. Nothing else discussed at BayFF really caught my attention except for a reference to, a site which tracks cease-and-desist orders issued to websites. In particular, Google apparently forwards their cease-and-desist orders to the site, so if your site suddenly disappears off of Google one day, you can check to see if this is why (it came up because some woman in the audience had that happen to her and had felt like her freedom of speech was infringed because nobody could see her site after it had disappeared from Google, which gets into an interesting legal area – does the right of free speech include the right to force a private company to carry notice of one’s speech?).

3 thoughts on “Information decay

  1. I agree. It’s a social problem, not a technological one.

    (And since it causes more problems for con-thinkers than prog-thinkers, I don’t mind leaving it unsolved by technical means, because I’m spiteful that way. Learn to cope with context, dammit!)

  2. Except that con-thinkers (who may be a majority in America right now) use it as an excuse to hold back pro-thinkers. So that part bothers me.

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