The End of the Information FrontierFebruary 16th, 2011
The possibility now exists of capturing a cradle-to-grave record of everything a person says or does. No longer must a personal history be a partial picture. Technology has made it possible to record, process, store, and retrieve all the text, sounds and images that are required to paint a complete picture of an individual’s life. The efforts of future historians will be directed more to forgetting than to remembering. By default society will forget nothing. For almost all of human history, remembering has meant the judicious selection and organization of observations about events and people. There used to be an information frontier beyond which the past was a tabula rasa. That information frontier has gone the way of the dodo.
The social memory of events in an individual’s life is not only detailed but permanent. Although physical storage is fallible and changes in technology may make some devices effectively unreadable, these limitations are more than made up for by the negligible cost of duplication and distribution in a network. The record of one’s triumphs and tragedies will haunt one forever. Gone is personal privacy since facts buried in the past can be uncovered at any moment. Gone is personal memory since it is easier to rely on the external social memory of cyberspace. In what follows we explain these observations and trace their consequences.
The Electronic Fishbowl
The existence and accessibility of vast amounts of information about ourselves increases our exposure and makes it difficult to define a private space (O’Harrow, 2005). Waves of innovation since the first computers were introduced in government agencies and large corporations in the 1950s have relentlessly buffeted personal privacy. The threat posed by the systems of federal and state governments, schools, banks, insurance companies and large organizations generally, pales into insignificance compared with the peering eyes of the electronic marketplace (Weitzner et al., 2008).
Even before the Internet, marketing operations have posed a threat to personal privacy. Dun and Bradstreet is a notable example of a large company whose business it is to keep track of vast numbers of people. This company has a database consisting of information on “approximately 315 living U.S. individuals as well as 85 million deceased individuals” (Dun and Bradstreet, 2011). Dun and Bradstreet use this database in conjunction with its consumer-market research services. Within this database is a record for practically every single household in the entire United States. The database is a valuable resource because it enables Dun and Bradstreet to conduct market surveys for companies introducing new products or attempting to stimulate sales of existing products.
Databases such as the one maintained by Dun and Bradstreet figure prominently in all aspects of marketing. For example, consider the introduction of a new product with characteristics a, b, c. By an appropriately designed search of its files, a database provider could identify all the households in the country whose buying profile shows a preference for products with characteristics a,b,c. It is possible to do this because the databases contain detailed information on the purchasing history of households combined with demographic data. One could, for example, identify all households in a given income range that subscribe to certain magazines, say on automobiles or on the stock market.
The electronic marketplace offers new opportunities for collecting information on buying behavior and customer preferences. Visits to Websites, clicks on advertisements, registration for ‘free’ information, payment transactions, online searches, and broadcasting personal information on social networking sites all provide useful data for advertisers and marketers. This data can be used to compile buying profiles on individuals to be used for targeted advertising. Some view these capabilities with alarm in view of the possibility of using profiles to identify and harass selected subgroups of people.
Throughout history, authorities have conducted surveillance on individuals and groups. But today, thanks to information technology, we are in a position to keep track of almost anything. The cost of doing it is relatively low, so it is possible for governments (and other organizations) to keep track of groups and individuals by maintaining a variety of computerized databases. Most of these databases arise as a bureaucratic necessity in the management of social programs such as education, health care, social welfare, etc. Since the 9/11 attack on the United States, surveillance by government agencies has intensified in an effort to monitor perceived threats from “undesirables,” i.e., potentially dangerous groups and individuals (O’Harrow, 2005). Unfortunately, this kind of surveillance invites abuses such as profiling for illegitimate political ends.
Database systems are indifferent to the definition of “undesirables” – they only provide the means for unlimited social memory. The enactment of laws protecting the privacy of individuals testifies to the threat to civil liberties posed by computer-based surveillance. In the past it was possible to escape the record of one’s doings by relocating to a place among strangers. The availability of records and the circulation of information on the Internet seriously reduce the chances of successfully hiding one’s past. An alternative that may become available is an active process of erasure. A step in that direction is being taken now with a program designed to delete sensitive information in records at a time specified by the data subject (Geambasu et al., 2010).
Despite the lip service paid to the desirability of protecting against such threats, few are willing to make much of a sacrifice to preserve personal privacy. Ordinary citizens, officials and politicians alike find the benefits of data surveillance too compelling. Most people are willing to provide personal information in exchange for benefits from government, to obtain and hold a job, to take advantage of customer loyalty programs, or to feel safe aboard an aircraft. Fair Information Practice principles dealing with collection, storage and distribution of personal data were established in the late 1960s and incorporated in legislation in the 1970s, see for example (Mowshowitz, 1976). These measures together with subsequent efforts to protect against the computer’s growing threat to privacy have proved useful in providing legal remedies for redress in cases of errors or omissions in personal records such as credit reports. As safeguards against political harassment, they are largely ineffective. It is much easier to weaken legal protections of civil liberties than it is to dismantle the computer and network based facilities that support surveillance. A notable example of such extension was the enactment of the U.S. Patriot Act in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attack. This Act significantly strengthened the investigative authority of the Federal Government (Electronic Privacy Information Center, 2011).
In this new world of pervasive surveillance we are all likely to become increasingly wary of risking exposure to public scrutiny. The possibility of being subject to ridicule, if not political harassment, acts an inhibitor of free expression. A new class of consultants together with software filters may come into being to protect individuals from broadcasting potentially embarrassing information about themselves on social networks. Reluctance to serve in positions of public trust may also increase, leaving the field open to incompetents, charlatans, and crooks.
Driving Forces: Technology and Market Opportunity
Digital media furnishing sophisticated and flexible means for storing, retrieving and sharing information have been developed in the past few decades. These media are designed to capture all forms of expression, including text, images, and sound, alone or in combination. They offer virtually unlimited, low cost storage capabilities, fast access, and flexible means for storing and retrieving information in forms that allow for exchange between machines or between humans and machines. Taken in isolation the new media are formidable enough, but as elements in computer networks, they form the technological basis for a sea change in the social role of information. The day of total recall is rapidly approaching (Bell and Gemmell, 2009). Wikipedia’s policy of recording and time stamping all changes to its articles gives a hint of the future of social memory.
With each new generation of storage devices, unit costs of information storage have declined. We have in fact reached the point at which there is no significant cost barrier to retaining records. There is little incentive for people to take time considering whether or not some material, however trivial and unimportant, should be retained. Space for storage is also a non-issue since the devices are becoming vanishingly small. So, any and all items of information are candidates for preservation.
Information stored on digital media does not degrade in the way it might on analog media. Traditional media like paper, analog recording tape, and film may deteriorate over time and recorded information may be lost or become too distorted for reliable and accurate recall. Of course, a digital medium can be destroyed and thus become unreadable, but so long as it can be read, the information remains as ‘fresh’ as when it was first recorded, i.e., recoverable in its original form. This property, in conjunction with the deployment of storage devices in a computer network, makes digital information virtually indestructible. The marginal cost of replicating information is essentially zero, and very little effort is required to make copies available on a network. Information files can be distributed over many systems, and the likelihood that all of them are rendered useless is extremely low. So the probability of any recorded information being irretrievably lost is getting ever closer to zero.
The new media have inherited the properties of paper-based media. Devices such as disks and memory sticks can be transported easily from place to place, can be used under a variety of conditions, are interchangeable as parts of other systems, and cost little per unit in high volume production. But the storage media of today represent a major advance over the old in their ability to be networked together as standalone devices or components of other devices. A computer network such as the Internet allows people to obtain (and distribute) information, almost instantaneously, from (and to) locations all over the world. Powerful information and communication services are now commonplace and will become universally available in the foreseeable future. These services allow for exchange and sharing of information in many different forms, and have already succeeded in replacing older modes of communication. Indeed, email and instant messaging have turned traditional letter writing into a quaint atavism.
Given the rather brief history of the Internet, whose commercial life spans a mere two decades, it would be foolish to speculate in detail on the shape of the future. Who would have dreamed ten years ago that social networking would command the power, money and influence it does today? However, revolutions in communication technology have occurred before so it may be useful to compare traditional media with the network-based media evolving now. Media may be characterized by general properties such as storage capacity, speed of access, durability, portability, etc. Other characteristics include the cost of producing and using storage media and the equipment and knowledge required to use them.
Traditional storage media include tablets made of stone or clay, papyrus scrolls, parchment, and paper. Each type has specific distinguishing characteristics. For example, stone tablets are very durable, but they are heavy and not easily transported. The material for making stone tables is readily available everywhere, but writing on stone is a laborious process. Papyrus is less durable than stone, but it is light and portable. Unlike stone, papyrus is made from material that is only available in certain regions. Paper is fairly durable and portable, and it can be made from material available everywhere. However, the manufacturing process is relatively complex.
The characteristics of media give important clues to their historical significance. For example, Innis (1951) has argued that papyrus, partly because of the limited availability of the reeds used to make it, and the complex system of writing used to record information on it, supported the “monopoly of knowledge” maintained by the priests and scribes of ancient Egypt. On the other hand, paper and the printing press combined to allow for broad dissemination of knowledge and thus played an important role in the evolution of democratic government.
Compared with the new storage media, all of the traditional ones are passive. That is to say, the information content of a book needs to be processed externally – by the human reader. A book has a fixed presentation; there is no way you can reorganize a book once it has been printed and distributed. Moreover, books have limited capabilities for assisting the reader in searching. Apart from fixed alphabetical indexes, there are no search aids in a printed book. The active techniques used in computer-based storage and retrieval systems represent a quantum leap beyond alphabetical indexing.
Computerized retrieval systems make it possible to view contents in different ways, in effect allowing the reader to organize the material at will. One can search for specific items of information and have the results displayed according to a given format. A database consisting of bibliographical citations, for example, can typically be searched by author, title, subject headings, publication date, etc., and by logical combinations of these keys. Search engines designed for the vast collection of pages on the World Wide Web accept terms of any description and produce results in seconds or even faster. Traditional media, as well as being passive, are machine insensitive, i.e., they cannot be processed directly by a computer. Passivity and machine-insensitivity are two critical features distinguishing the old from the new media.
As a practical example, consider a company’s client database. Each record in such a database may contain the name of the client, the client’s business, an indicator of the amount purchased by the client, the client’s address, and a variety of other items, arranged in a fixed order. Although the record format may be fixed, information from the database can be retrieved and presented in various ways. A salesperson might search for all the clients in the file whose businesses are located in a given region, and have them listed alphabetically by zip code. Other users in the company might want client information presented in a different way. The accounting department might need a list of all the clients in the file whose payments are overdue. So information can be retrieved and presented to suit the needs of the user. It is in that sense that these new media are active: one can store, retrieve, and re-present information automatically to satisfy a particular requirement.
The active character of the new media contrasts sharply with the passivity of the traditional ones. A second contrast, as mentioned earlier, derives from the fact that one can access these new media through networks. In principle, this can be done from the office, from the home, from a public place – in short, from anywhere. It is possible right now, simply by connecting to a computer network from a host of inexpensive devices, to gain access to a collection of multimedia information in any part of the world.
The facilities of the Internet have greatly extended the marketplace for information. New forms of intellectual property are being created daily. Inexpensive storage, near universal access, and extensive distribution facilities have created opportunities for communication services and content providers. Traditional content providers such as print media (e.g., newspapers and magazine publishers) can sell online subscriptions and offer fee -based services permitting access to archival material. Similar opportunities are available to purveyors of sound and image databases.
Information that in the past was of little or no interest, except perhaps to a very small segment of the total population, now takes on the character of a raw material to be mined just like iron ore or some other natural resource. This means that more and more information becomes privatized. That is to say, information from a variety of sources is aggregated and sold in the form of information products and services. Specialized bibliographic retrieval systems have been commercially available since the early days of computing. These services, now offered online, have long played a role in research and development activities. Of perhaps greater significance are the generalized retrieval services such as Google and Yahoo that allow Internet users to search for sources of information on the World Wide Web. These services have developed a mass customer base, thanks in part to a business model in which the bulk of revenues are derived from advertising rather than user fees.
Ironically, the privatization of information accompanying commercialization reduces the privacy of those on whom data is aggregated for sale. The sale of aggregated personal data for use in marketing is highly profitable and a major driver of the transformation of personal into social information. This transformation compromises the privacy of the users of online services through targeted commercial and political advertising directed at these very same people.
A new class of actors is gaining influence over the disposition of knowledge and information because of their success in exploiting the new media as marketplace instruments. As information becomes privatized, the possibility of a new monopoly of knowledge arises. Profit becomes the selective and organizing principle. The Internet has been hailed as the next stage in the democratic revolution spurred by the invention of the printing press. This assessment may be somewhat premature as private interests are gaining control of major sources of information as well as access to those sources. Media and online service providers have been digitizing large collections of multimedia data for future commercial exploitation, and purchasing specialized collections of published material. Private interests in media content have been strengthened by the extension of copyright protection to digital works through national legislation such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (Wikipedia, 2011a) in the United States implementing the provisions of World Intellectual Property Organization treaties.
If most of the information and knowledge that one needs becomes privately controlled, it may reflect the systematic bias of the owner or producer. Bias is not a new problem, but the marketplace introduces new sources of bias that we have yet to encounter. Selection and organization will be based on considerations of cost and profitability, rather then human needs and desires.
Innis examined the role of monopolies of knowledge throughout history with a view to ascertaining the bias they exert in human affairs (Innis, 1951). According to Innis, some media tend to support political administration, while others promote religion. A common element in the formation of monopolies of knowledge has been the acquisition by some group of special skill or knowledge that people find important. Such special skill or knowledge may confer enormous power on the group possessing it. The scribes of ancient Egypt, for example, exercised their influence by virtue of their special knowledge of a complex system of writing.
Innis’ notion of monopoly of knowledge suggests that the new actors in the rapidly evolving information marketplace – companies like the online vendors, software makers, equipment manufacturers, broadcasting companies, communication carriers, etc. – are acquiring more than economic importance. They already control vast amounts of information that people need for making political, economic, social, educational, and all other kinds of decisions. Increasingly, the possibility arises, as applications of the new media are refined and extended and the information marketplace grows in importance, that these new instruments will enable information companies acting in accordance with the profit motive to determine how and what we forget, and, thus, what we remember of our experience.
The extraordinary capabilities of the new media are effecting a change in the balance between personal and social memory. A decisive shift is in the making, from the personal to the social. People are coming to rely excessively on the consultation of external sources, mainly the collection of material in cyberspace, committing less and less to personal memory.
Recording Everything, Remembering Nothing
To achieve a coherent memory of experience, one needs to select. It is not possible to gain a coherent understanding of what has happened if one insists on taking account of every conceivable detail about an event. Even adherents of exhaustive digital records recognize the need to select from the massive detail of “lifelogging” (Sellen and Whittaker, 2010). So, inevitably, one needs to introduce some kind of order, selecting some things and ignoring others, to allow for seeing patterns that facilitate interpretation of experience. There is no escaping the need to select, and if social memory substitutes too much for personal memory, then the ability to select and to organize will diminish along with the recollection of facts.
Personal memory is just what is stored in one’s own head; social memory is the collective record of human activity. Using a loose computer metaphor, one can view personal memory as random access main storage and social memory as peripheral, auxiliary or archival storage. The danger of increasing reliance on social memory is a diminished role for personal memory. Atrophy of personal memory may not be inevitable, but the current drift in this direction is alarming. The shift from personal to social memory brings something like Gresham’s Law into play. According to this venerable law of economics, if currency is debased, e.g., if the silver and gold content of coins is reduced, the good coins will be quickly withdrawn from circulation. An analogue of this economic phenomenon is manifest in the new computer-based media which facilitate circulation of debased knowledge, nuggets of information delivered as bits of text (such as tweets), sound bites or fleeting images. Reliance on the external memory of information nuggets distributed in cyberspace impedes understanding. If the all encompassing auxiliary memory takes the place of main (personal) memory, abstraction and conceptualization become impossible. Borges develops this idea in his short story about a young man with total recall (Borges, 1962). The narrator says of the main character Funes “He was … almost incapable of general, platonic ideas. It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front).”
Borges’ character Funes can be seen as a limiting case of an individual whose personal memory is completely replaced by an unbounded external memory. Normally the replacement (or dependence on external memory) is partial. Problems of abstraction and conceptualization arise as the degree of replacement increases. Without these capacities the ability to interpret experience is severely curtailed. Hesse anticipated this reduction of ‘true’ knowledge in his depiction of the “age of the digest” in the novel The Glass Bead Game (Hesse, 1969). Writing in the late nineteenth century Nietzsche railed against the pursuit of knowledge as “nut cracking” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Nietzsche, 1954). Contemporary efforts to interpret reality and understand the world are being transformed into a game of Trivial Pursuit. Proliferation of easily accessible networked databases cultivates a dependence on external sources by reinforcing the belief that learning facts, i.e., cultivating personal memory, is unnecessary. At the same time the glut of information militates against trying to hone one’s reasoning skills. Why bother when arguments galore can be found with a Google search.
The role of forgetting, i.e., selectively remembering and organizing, in the interpretation of experience is a revealing theme in literature and cinema. Hal Draper’s “Ms Fnd in a Lbry” (Draper, 1961) is a parable of the failure of social memory. The abbreviations in the title of this story clearly suggest “Manuscript Found in a Library.” It takes place in the distant future in a world that is far more complex than our own. All information and knowledge in this world is stored in extremely compact media, and the people’s access to this information and knowledge is mediated by very high order indexes. There exist indexes of the sources themselves, but there are also indexes of indexes, and indexes of indexes of indexes, etc. So, generally speaking, the people in this rarified, future world have little or no direct knowledge of reality. At best they are familiar with some high order indexes of indexes. What happens in the story is that a crucial key in some very high level index is lost. The result is a complete disaster because the information needed to keep the society going is suddenly irretrievable. The entire system collapses because the society was completely dependent on social memory, and that social memory failed. With the loss of the index key, there is absolutely no way of accessing the vast collection of material, and nobody in this future world has any direct experience of reality – no personal memory, in other words.
This story highlights a curious paradox. As social memory substitutes for personal memory, virtually everything is recorded simply because it can be. Since the introduction of the IBM personal computer in the early 1980s, the capacity of hard drive storage in desktop and notebook computers has increased a million fold. For all practical purposes storage can be taken as unlimited. With all the heterogeneous pieces of information strewn over these drives, indexing schemes become essential. Indexes are the computing equivalent of closet organizers, and speak to the very same tendency we have to throw together random tokens of experience. It seems we are on the threshold of Draper’s future world of hyper compression, beginning the journey in which the ability to record everything ends in having no collective memory at all.
Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Feeling of Power” (Asimov, 1958) celebrated personal memory in a different way. This story is also set in the future; it centers on research and development conducted by the United States Department of Defense. The world of the story is a highly automated one in which all weapon systems are run by robots and computers. In the course of the story, someone discovers that the human being is an extraordinarily flexible instrument. In particular, it appears that humans can add numbers together. This great discovery triggers much excitement among the generals because they glimpse the potential of the human being as a control device. Personal memory reappears.
Two movies released during the past decade have dealt with the management of memory. In the 2004 movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (Wikpedia, 2011b) each of the two main characters – a man and a woman who had been romantically involved with each other – makes use of a professional service to expunge the memories of their relationship. The procedures performed on these two characters selectively destroy memory traces. Elimination of specific memories through intervention in the nervous system is not directly related to the shift from personal to social memory, but it serves to highlight the shift by virtue of focusing on the ability to manipulate memory. The service itself is a reflection of a society prepared to manage the memory of events, whether acting to alter memory traces in the brain or modify entries in a computerized record system.
“The Final Cut” (Wikipedia, 2011c), another movie from 2004, is about compiling a record of the events in a person’s life to provide a kind of testimonial after death. In this story devices are implanted in the body that record everything a person does, says, hears or sees. The job of the “cutter” is to select and compile from this mass of data a picture that does credit to the deceased, depending on the wishes of the family. This process underscores the role of selectivity in remembering and forgetting, and especially the possibility of manipulating memory to achieve certain ends. A vicious person can be transformed into a saint in the final cut. The theme is reminiscent of the rewriting of history by government officials in Orwell’s novel 1984.
The shift from personal memory to social memory is problematic. It may lead to conditions reminiscent of the French Bourbon Kings, of whom it has been said “they never forgot anything and they never learned anything.”
Transient Identity and Self Knowledge
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the lost information frontier derives from the proliferation of profiles or personal histories which now play a major role in the formation of personal identity. Such histories come into being in the course of registering, establishing or projecting an identity on Websites or in virtual communities in cyberspace. Banks, credit card companies, brokerage and insurance firms, government agencies, retail stores, newspapers, magazines, etc. acquire personal information when a client registers for a service or an account, and augment their records with additional data through interactions with clients. Browsing and buying behavior, for example, may generate enough data to construct an elaborate profile or personal history. Social networking sites, chat rooms and other Web-based media acquire yet more information from participants. These sites and social media host the many virtual communities to which we belong. Some of these communities are ephemeral, others may persist for some time, but all of them exert an influence on behavior.
The role of communities and peer groups in shaping character was depicted in literature long before the sociologist Riesman formally distinguished between tradition, inner and other directed types (Riesman et al., 1950). Babbitt, the prototypical solid citizen of Sinclair Lewis’ eponymous novel of 1922, typifies the other directed character type. “Just as he was an Elk, a Booster, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce, just as the priests of the Presbyterian Church determined his every religious belief and the senators who controlled the Republican Party decided in little smoky rooms in Washington what he should think about disarmament, tariff, and Germany, so did the large national advertisers fix the surface of his life, fix what he believed to be his individuality. These standard advertised wares – toothpastes, socks, tires, cameras, instantaneous hot-water heaters – were his symbols and proofs of excellence; at first the signs, then the substitutes, for joy and passion and wisdom (Lewis, 1922, p. 95)”
As the Internet becomes ever more integrated into contemporary life, the dominant other directed character type becomes virtual directed. The peer groups to which other directed types tuned their antennae are now virtual communities in cyberspace. The latter are much more numerous and shorter lived than the former. Continual movement in and out of these virtual communities makes it difficult to establish a consistent identity. Whatever else Babbitt may represent in American culture, his behavior was consistent with a well-defined other directed character. Although character is never completely fixed, core values and attributes are essential to the formation of a coherent personal identity. These values and attributes need to be reinforced by communities if they are not to become attenuated and disappear. Virtual communities could provide this reinforcement if they were sufficiently stable. However, the advantages of virtual communities as organizational forms would be lost if they were stable and long lived.
Self-knowledge is a critical part of being human and the communities to which we belong play an important role in the development of such knowledge. What we know about ourselves depends on recollections of personal experience and the feedback we obtain from others. That feedback is based on what we reveal directly to close associates (i.e., family and friends) and the information about us that is made available to the wider publics that define our world. The publicly available information may come from many different sources, including records about us held by public and private organizations as well as what we might reveal to the various virtual communities to which we belong. Since the record of events in cyberspace is comprehensive and essentially permanent (taking account of digital archives), the feedback is subject to continual revision. The proliferation of revisions, presented from the vantage point of different virtual communities, undermines the consistency of what one knows about oneself. Coherence and consistency vanish with the ebb and flow of ever changing portraits; we oscillate between worlds without ever belonging to any one in particular. Identity theft is symptomatic of the externalization of memory. The earmarks of identity are little more than bookkeeping entries in computerized databases whose integrity is difficult to guarantee. It’s no wonder a whole industry has sprung up to help people cope with the legal and financial consequences of identity theft.
Absent coherence and consistency the Socratic admonition “know thyself” is meaningless, unless one holds with Isaac Asimov that self knowledge is expressed in a buying profile (Asimov, 1973). It is in the interest of advertisers and marketers to foster the idea of transient identity by equating knowledge of self with one’s buying profile. We are the sum total of what is currently recorded by the databases circulating in cyberspace. Personal identity is but a passing image in a kaleidoscope that may be ‘borrowed’ for a while by a determined hacker or impersonator. Social knowledge gains at the expense of personal knowledge, and increasingly humans take on the characteristics of social insects buzzing around cyberspace.
This is especially noticeable in education where trade offs between personal and social memory are evident at every turn. Students often complain that some courses involve too much rote learning, that one is asked to memorize too many things. In recent years there has been a shift in emphasis in the world of education from memorization to problem-solving. Despite the rapid short-term changes in educational fashions, one can discern a long-term increase in emphasis on problem-solving and a decrease in emphasis on the acquisition of facts.
At first glance this shift seems reasonable and salutary. On the other hand, what one can actually know about a country, say, without having in one’s personal memory facts concerning the geography, demography, history, economics, politics, etc, of that country. The argument for greater reliance on social rather than personal memory for facts goes something like this: “I don’t really have to learn names, dates and places, because all of these things are readily available. All I need is a network access device, and if I want to know something, I issue a command to search the Web and out come the information I want. So there is no need for me to remember who fought what battle or what administration took what action at what time.”
This is a problematic argument. As suggested in the previous section, it is not at all clear that one can in fact interpret reality and make intelligent assessments without personal memory of many factual details. The ability to recall diverse facts so as to contemplate, compare, organize, and interpret them is an essential part of acquiring knowledge. This ability cannot be cultivated without personal memory, nor can a coherent identity be formed in the whirlwind of evanescent virtual communities based on social memory.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (The Gospel according to St. John). Today the Word is the Internet. Perhaps this global system is prologue to Frederick Brown’s short story “Answer” which takes place at the birth of an intergalactic computer system which is asked “Is there a God” and answers “Yes, now there is a God” (Brown, 1954). The Internet is not omnipotent but it is well on the way to becoming an omniscient system of recorded information. This network of networks is in effect an electronic fishbowl in which we are the fish. Privacy is gone unless one opts out of the mainstream of modern life. Personal memory is being replaced by social memory. Personal history has become a moving target. Self knowledge is nothing more than awareness of one’s current buying profile in the electronic marketplace. Society is at risk of catastrophic failure as we lose touch with reality by internalizing too little knowledge and depending too much on external sources.
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