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The Hindenburg of the Internet?

“Oh, the humanity,” the now-trite Herbert Morrison radio call of the Hindenburg disaster, came to mind today as I read Jeffrey Rosen’s “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” a NYTimes Magazine popularization of a theme heard in cyberlaw circles for some time:  The Internet never forgets.

Rosen’s piece covers the right ground and the standard moves (anecdotes, a reference to Borges, the history of privacy, prescriptions from cyberlaw scholars, tech experts, and behavioral economists), but for my money he doesn’t really connect with the topic until he gets around to the point that the Internet’s inability to engage in collective forgetting is linked, perhaps inextricably, with the passing of the idea of collective — I’ll say “communal” — forgiveness.  Rosen:

In addition to exposing less for the Web to forget, it might be helpful for us to explore new ways of living in a world that is slow to forgive. It’s sobering, now that we live in a world misleadingly called a “global village,” to think about privacy in actual, small villages long ago. In the villages described in the Babylonian Talmud, for example, any kind of gossip or tale-bearing about other people — oral or written, true or false, friendly or mean — was considered a terrible sin because small communities have long memories and every word spoken about other people was thought to ascend to the heavenly cloud. (The digital cloud has made this metaphor literal.) But the Talmudic villages were, in fact, far more humane and forgiving than our brutal global village, where much of the content on the Internet would meet the Talmudic definition of gossip: although the Talmudic sages believed that God reads our thoughts and records them in the book of life, they also believed that God erases the book for those who atone for their sins by asking forgiveness of those they have wronged. In the Talmud, people have an obligation not to remind others of their past misdeeds, on the assumption they may have atoned and grown spiritually from their mistakes. “If a man was a repentant [sinner],” the Talmud says, “one must not say to him, ‘Remember your former deeds.’ ”

Unlike God, however, the digital cloud rarely wipes our slates clean, and the keepers of the cloud today are
sometimes less forgiving than their all-powerful divine predecessor.

I think that’s the key to what makes so many people uncomfortable with the persistence of Facebook data and search histories.  We aren’t bothered so much by the fact that material doesn’t disappear; we are bothered by the fact that the persistence and disappearance of knowledge about us are no longer products of our communal experiences.  The technology is, in this sense, fundamentally inhumane.   Rosen didn’t cite or quote Neil Postman, but in Technopoly, retelling Plato’s parable of Socrates and the invention of writing, Postman anticipates The End of Forgetting.  Writing, Postman’s paradigmatic new technology, was likewise fundamentally inhumane.  It gave us — the community — the ability to recollect, but it deprived us of the ability to remember.

In the “solutions” department, Rosen is somewhat dismissive of comparisons to what he calls “self-governing communities like Wikipedia” or “the wisdom of the crowd”; he devotes more time to suggestions by Zittrain (“reputation bankruptcy”) and Ohm (antidiscrimination laws), to market-based private correctives (ReputationDefender), and code (the Mission Impossible-style “self-destructing data”).  For a problem that is essentially collective and communal, these are all surprisingly individualistic approaches.  I’ll predict that  something like what really does happen in Wikipedia much of the time, as opposed to Rosen’s  stereotyped presentation of Wikipedia, is likely to emerge in Facebook, and if not in Facebook, then as an adjunct to Facebook:  community governance.  In fact, if Facebook is smart, it will stop putting so much emphasis on hyper-elaborate privacy settings and policies, each change to which seems to elicit a massive chorus of criticism, and start investing in protocols and policies for collective management and monitoring by groups of Facebook users.  Who knows?  Maybe there’s a profit opportunity there.

While I’m at the “humanity” theme, I’ll note my strong negative reaction to Richard Thaler’s ineffective and ill-informed effort to analogize problems with soccer (football) refereeing to problems with regulating financial markets, which also appears in today’s Times.  Thaler doesn’t know much about soccer, and it shows.  He repeatedly refers to the “rules” of soccer and makes a half-hearted and ultimately incorrect effort to describe when a player should be whistled for being offside.  I understand that he isn’t really trying to reform soccer officiating, but I couldn’t help thinking that he starts from a false premise:  That the outcome of financial markets and the outcome of a soccer game share a common goal — that performance, not regulation, should dictate results.

The problem is that there is no shared vision in soccer of what constitutes “performance”; aside from the scoreline, “performance” in soccer is measured on essentially aesthetic — humane — grounds.  If you know soccer, you know that in most competitive contexts, officials are subject to post-match assessments, as I assume they are in other sports.   I don’t want to diminish the fact that the recent World Cup finals revealed something that every soccer fan and player already knew:  referees are fallible, and their fallibility occasionally leads to missed calls that change the outcomes of games, even very important games.  But the performance of a referee as measured in a referee assessment is not merely a question of whether all offenses visible to an objective observer were whistled by the referee, because there are often cases where a referee has the power — judgment, let us say — *not* to call a foul.  The question, in other words, is the character of the referee’s judgment.  An additional criterion during the assessment is the “flow” of the game:  of the 90 minutes of a standard match, what percentage of that time involved the ball actually being in play?   (60 minutes out of 90 is a decent benchmark.)  And there is a significant degree of communal, self-regulation on the field of a soccer match.  The referee has power and judgment, but ultimately it is the players themselves who decide whether the game will be open and flowing (Germany v. Uruguay, for example) or cynical and tactical (Netherlands v. Spain).

All of those things could be changed, of course.  Thaler, the economist, gives the impression that he wishes that soccer were more like what he believes basketball to be, with less judgment in the officiating and more “objective” criteria for regulating play.  When it comes to financial markets, he may be right on; that’s not my area of expertise.  And doubtless there are those who agree with him when it comes to soccer.  For myself, I reacted strongly to his piece because I read it as of a piece with Rosen’s take on Facebok:  Oh, the humanity!