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The Moon may have lost her memory, but social media have not

Memory is just one among many services, or “features” of social media, engineered to bring back our memories, whether we like it or not. Image credit: Google

Do you remember Cats?

Midnight, not a sound from the pavement
Has the Moon lost her memory?
She is smiling alone

I liked the play and particularly this song, sweet and sad at the same time. It came back to my mind as I read a very nice article on Wired “I called off my wedding, the Internet will never forget”, by Laureen Goode. Well written, nice to read and most important thought-provoking.

You can easily tell by the title what it is all about. However, there is more than the obvious that once some of your life goes in the cyberspace it stays there and removing that information becomes impossible. Actually, I have to apologise with Laureen up front because as I am referring to her article I am creating further copies of “her” in the cyberspace, copies that she won’t be able to erase (I take that is ok, since she has published the article).

One of the points that made me think is that social media, and the AI engines behind them, will go well beyond keeping a record of our life. They will actually send us reminders of the past in a way that makes it impossible to forget.

Also, these AI engines are not that smart at all. In the case of Laureen she published on a few social media her “getting ready” for tying the knot, the plans for the wedding the search for that perfect bridal gown, … When she / they called off their wedding most of these engines did not take note. Hence, for them the wedding took place and in these last two years she has been receiving anniversary congratulations from several web sites, renewing the pain for something that was in the past and should stay there.

Amazon, Facebook, Google -to name the obvious ones- are all recording our memories and come back to us with messages and photos that we thought we erased long ago. Not so. They are still in the cyberspace and are pushed to us without even asking if that is ok.

A point that she makes in the article is that this continuous prompt changes the past into the present, meaning that our usual way of dealing with the past is shattered. Our memories, when in our brain, morph over time, often erasing the “bad spots” and rearranging facts to suit our current situation. Now you may object that what our brain does is some form of cheating, that facts are better than illusions or “adaptations”. Yet, our life is a continuous flow (has always been like that) where we understand thew present based on our experiences, our memories. This understanding is based on the changes that those experiences generated, not on those experiences as such. What happens with this cold memory prompt, on the other hand, is based on facts that are no longer felt as such, hence the feeling of being violated (sometimes, obviously there are also plenty of times that looking at a long forgotten photo will draw a smile on our lips).

This aspect is, actually, one of the main hurdle towards the development of a personal digital twin. We need to find ways for our PDT to forget, and to forget in the same way we are forgetting, if we want to have a digital copy of ourselves.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.