Many people have experienced that crushing moment when they realise they’ve got to rapidly delete a few things from their internet history. So we can all feel some sympathy for Google after the landmark “Right to be forgotten” ruling made by the EU against them recently, which has forced them to remove personal data from search results upon request.
Last week Google unveiled their form for these requests, and the whole affair isn’t going down well. While some call it a victory for privacy, many complain it reeks of censorship and has no legal oversight. And theoretically they’re right – we know the importance of free speech and the terrible dangers of censorship. Have you read Fahrenheit 451? There are nasty robot dogs and things, no-one wants that.
But in this case let’s make an exception. For God’s sake, let’s hit the delete key - because we’re all too caught up in our digital past.
Every generation is nostalgic, but the internet has created a space where this natural impulse is indulged beyond where it’s healthy. Conventional wisdom is to ‘let go’ of the past and move on, but how is this possible when Facebook timelines track your life from beginning to end, LinkedIn curates a glumly underwhelming list of career detritus and Twitter maintains your every passing moronic thought?
And the internet doesn’t just offer the opportunity to dwell on old memories, it positively encourages it. The recent popularity of the TimeHop app (which reposts old social media activity) demonstrates this, as does the success of ‘Throwback Thursday’, a Twitter hashtag game built entirely around sharing old photos.
All of this feeds our sense of self-obsession, where everything we’ve done seems important because it’s immortalised on the internet like an essential bulletin. Photo albums and keepsakes have existed before, but now nearly everyone has thousands of pictures of and information about themselves – unfiltered, relentlessly promoted and easily recalled at will.
Forget prospective employers Googling you - in 20 years the internet will have made it literally impossible for anyone to be elected to a public office. How could the Women’s minister carry on when it emerges that he once liked GUYS WHO LOVE JEGGINGS on Facebook? How could the Foreign Secretary build strong international links after the dramatic reveal that she once retweeted Jeremy Clarkson?
The issues go deeper. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror once imagined a world where our every action was recorded, and showed how it drove a cuckolded husband to obsession and violence. It’s a chilling warning to every Facebook stalker of ex-partners, but it also demonstrates a fundamental truth – the way we use the comprehensive documentation of our lives online can have negative psychological impacts.
Outside of the depression that lingering on old sorrows can obviously bring, dwelling negatively on the past has been shown to cause stress, less proactivity, disengagement, binge eating, general negativity, and even heart problems.
Beyond this, Victor Mayer-Schönberger, Professor of internet governance and regulation at the University of Oxford's Internet Institute, believes that any inability to forget limits the ability to process the world as it is now and make decisions. “The effect may be stronger when caused by more comprehensive and easily accessible external digital memory,” he said in 2011. “Too perfect a recall, even when it is benignly intended to aid our decision-making, may prompt us to become caught up in our memories, unable to leave our past behind.”
The EU ruling doesn’t solve any of this, and of course it’s not great that people could now erase their misdeeds from digital record. But it establishes a precedent whereby your personal data might be a little less easy to dig out of the web – and that might be something we need. The capacity to leave some things in the past, to move on is valuable – and that, unlike anything else, is being forgotten.