Should files have expiration dates?

Lee Gomes of Wall Street Journal fame has an interesting Q&A with Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He thinks files should have expiration dates because human beings are “better off” when we forget certain things.

It’s an interesting argument, though it leaves me wanting to know more of the reasoning before I’m ready to support any law mandating it. In fact, it goes against the latest movement of society to be more interested in genealogy and family history. But check out the Q&A:

How have computers changed our ideas about memory?

For humans, remembering has always been very hard. While we have developed tools over time to help ourselves remember, like writing things down, it still takes time and effort.

But now in the digital age, this has switched. Now, the default is remembering — storing and retaining all the data we collect. And deleting is really hard. It really takes an extra effort to delete.

We are biologically hard-wired to selectively remember. But in moving into a digital age, we are now surrounding ourselves with tools that have inversed that.

How does this make life different?

In the predigital age, we might have called someone who knew a person we were interested in learning about, got them to tell us about the person. And we would get a quick picture — but not a complete and comprehensive picture of each and every piece of communication or behavior that the person did over the past 20 years. I think we have lost something by moving from that sort of short encapsulation toward a complete picture that provides us with all the details, the sort that over time, we as a society, and as human beings, tend to forget.

But what’s the problem with that?

Things that happened 10 or 15 years ago might have happened to a different person. Therefore, we should put less weight on what we did 15 years ago than we would do now. In the past, our brains did this automatically for us by forgetting it. But we haven’t been able to develop another evolutionary method, another method by which we can weigh things that happened further in the past differently from those that happened more recently.

So what do we do?

My proposal is that we have a law that mandates that software coders build into software a better ability for people to let their digital tools forget, if they so wish. Right now, both Windows as well as Mac OS have a huge amount of meta data that they keep track of for each file that we use: “Date Created,” “Owner,” and so on. So I suggest that we add another type of meta data: “Expiration Date.”

Doesn’t that go against the whole modern legal approach to record-keeping?

I am primarily interested in personal information about people, rather than corporate records. I have no problem with a law saying that certain kinds of records need to be kept for five years or 10 years or 50 years. Though I do question the rationale for keeping things forever.

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