Saturday, February 21, 2004

Reminded of The Forgetting Machine

I had lunch with my friend John today, and he reminded me that I am supposed to be working on my Forgetting Machine. But that means working on my C++ skills, and although I have decided my project will be soft, I cannot decide on its form and some of its functions...

So we talked about a few things that connect to my love of decaying and disrupted systems, broken machines, memory and forgetting. (I keep meaning to ask Matt Webb about the last bit here.)

And John was talking about his early Usenet experiences, or how the Usenet protocols, increasing online traffic and limited processor power and storage space contributed to a sense that Internet communications were temporary. News admins would typically retain messages for a set period of time, and when they expired, they would be erased or fall off the bottom. (Deja's archives only go back to 1995, and Google's archives from the early days are patchy at best.) BBSs were also purged regularly, and people tended not to save email messages until POP and dial-up accounts became common. Apparently, since so little was being actively and systematically saved, people didn't fret about their words coming back to haunt them. It was understood that the machines - if not the people - would largely forget what had been said and sent.

Now our machines seem to remember everything, although as we produce and accumulate more and more information - and strive towards context awareness - we are still limited by processing power and storage. Online communications are now generally understood as public and permanent: when we post something online, we assume that Google will find it, which means that others can too. IM logs are generated by default. I delete much of my email, although I know people who have never deleted one message and plenty who send and copy email so as to ensure a public record is created. Memory seems to be much more important than forgetting now, and we assume that computers will continue to collect information and the Internet and the Web will continue to grow. (Even when sites try to die, they persist as the undead or ghost sites.)

So I was reminded of my Forgetting Machine. And that I am trying to build something that reminds us that not all things can or should be remembered. A tricky task, for sure! Part of this involves the creative corruption of information - along the lines of bricolage or remixing - as well as the selective and wholesale deletion of information. (And this, in turn, reminds me that FilePile is a brilliant example of sociable software if only because it forgets things, and lets people selectively remember, or (re)create memories - an important part of collective interaction.)

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