“Forgetting as a feature, not a bug”

[New] technologies are currently being viewed as either substitutes for, or possible augmentations of, human faculties. I argue that the proffered scenarios of computerized ‘help’ for human activities evident in the ubiquitous computing world tends to focus on augmentation of human remembering, with sensors and computer networks archiving vast amounts of data, but neglects to consider what augmentation might mean when it comes to that other human activity, namely, forgetting. (5)

via www.contemplativecomputing.org

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is reading an article by Liam Bannon, director of the Interaction Design Centre at the University of Limerick, on forgetting as a feature, not a bug.

I started down the path of thinking about how computers currently handle the process of forgetting, and as part of that better understand what kind of metaphors are missing for the task of augmenting forgetting.

There's the notion of "garbage collection", when unwanted memory is reclaimed. That process relies on a way of marking unwanted (computer) memory as forgettable. Every so often the garbage collection process runs, slowing down the system as it does, and cleaning up the mess left behind.

Computers also have the notion and defect of a "memory leak", where unwanted memory accumulates in a state where it's taking up space but not really doing anything. A slow memory leak in a long running process will eventually bring a system down as more and more system resources are absorbed and never freed.

When memory does go bad in a computer world, it's "bitrot" – think about old tapes that have glitch errors, or more importantly old computer programs that have a hard time digesting new formats of data. This often happens when a new and improved technology foregoes compatibility with old formats, with the clean slate being easier to build from rather than re-encrufting some old system.

Cloud computing has its own feature of forgetting, in the "sunset" phase of an online service where unpopular, unprofitable, or unendearing features or services get deliberately turned off. If you had relied on that system for your external memory you are in for a rude surprise.

The worrisome aspect of computer memory is its binary nature, where a single transient glitch can render mass storage unreadable, and so rather than the healthy forgetting of the human brain you get sudden unrecoverable failure. Your carefully pickled up thoughts or rolodex full of context vanishes, and suddenly you have to rely on your mental rolodex rather than the paper or electronic one to recall details.

(Filed under Discardia.)

(Edited March 2013 to expand and add section on sunsetting internet services.)


3 thoughts on ““Forgetting as a feature, not a bug”

  1. Eric Sobocinski

    Yes, but you should also consider an important feature of sudden catastrophic failure from bitrot: When computer storage goes wrong, it’s usually obvious from the wholesale error that it’s wrong. Compare to human memory that almost immediately begins to forget and continues to progressively discard information, with no veracity checking at all. Despite this, humans assume their memories to be true, even when confronted with conflicting memories of the same item from other people. Research continues to show that they rarely are.
    That does nothing to contradict forgetting as a feature, but how one handles unintended forgetting is important too.

  2. Brian Kerr

    There’s also a service design angle here, where the limitations of a free or freemium service actually make the free plan more attractive.
    My favorite example is Flickr, whose free plan limits your stream to the 200 most recent photos (but doesn’t break links to your older photos). When I used Flickr, that amounted to about a 1.5 year cycle time for photos to rotate offline — which, for my usage, was just about right.
    In this scenario, Yahoo’s service was awesome as a way to publish and share photos. (I didn’t, and don’t, trust Yahoo for backup of any kind.)
    Maybe there’s a market for a premium Pinboard membership that deletes your oldest bookmarks?

  3. Edward Vielmetti

    Corporations at times will go through exercises of wholesale corporate forgetting, where document retention and document destruction policies are enforced to make sure that the paper trail of corporate (mal)feasance has a limited lifespan.
    Imagine an email service that every day presented you with your inbox from 2 years ago, and prompted you to fully delete or reply to or re-archive those messages. People would be impressed with your project followup skills.


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