How do digital knowledge, memory & learning affect our freedoms?
There are limits to human knowledge and memory. Biologically, we do not store abstract knowledge knowledge well.This type of knowledge would include numbers, letters, and complex ideas that do not relate to us. Although we have about 100 billion neurons, we are limited to the synapses between active ones. Each neuron could be connected to 10,000 other ones, which leads to and the possibility of contamination between various memories and explains why we may not remember a fact or event accurately. For a memory to be committed to long-term memory, according to Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, “our brain uses multiple levels of processing and filtering before committing information to long-term memory.” 1In a sense, we are not free to be factual and robotic, but rather free to be expressive and reliant on our own interpretations of the real world.
Due to a need for recording this information, we started to use various mediums (cuneiforms, paper, and now digital inscription) as a response to our biological limits in memory. Like Socrates mentioned, we no longer needed to remember because the information was available 2.
Because digital inscription has been so good, I’d argue that it has affected our freedom to forget, and our freedom to be creative.
There has been a culture created in which we are not allowed to forget. Forgetting can encompass a broad range of definitions, including the loss of information, the removal of information, or the process of change. Living with Complexity is a book by Donald A. Norman that delves into how new technological advances must remain complex by mirroring the complexity of our everyday lives. Digital inscription has led to an oversaturation of information and data that has tried to free us from looking at the small details by categorizing people, but our individualism has suffered. It is ironic how we are creating complex technology to simplify processes. The inability to lose aspects is seen in the video game medium as well, in which console developments and new games had to always “add” to what existed previously. The book Delete has explained how we “would be overwhelmed quickly if we committed to memory every stimulus we receive.” 3
The cliche “don’t reinvent the wheel” is both a blessing and a curse.” This phrase is used regularly in entrepreneurial or educational settings that push people to produce something new. The assumption is that nothing should be repeated because copying and pasting is considered taboo. The freedom to be creative is now extremely dependent on previous knowledge, and puts future generations at a disadvantage in which they must create just for the act of doing so. I think we are entering a stage in the Digital Age in which we are afraid to waste resources and want them to use shared, basic knowledge to innovate within specialized fields.
Therefore, for us to remain “free” in the digital age, we must introduce and refine three types of freedoms:
(1) Academic/Research freedom,
(2) Artistic/Expressive freedom, and
(3) Identity freedom.
These three types of freedoms are addressed via three broad principles that will guide us into the Digital Age: Agency of Digital Presence and Information, Active Expression and Creativity that is enabled by technology, and the Ability to Forget and simplify.
Agency of the Digital Presence and Information
In response to the power relationships that are being established between individual and software accessed publicly, providing users a level of agency in their digital presence and information is critical to enabling identity freedom. The trust is thus shared between the individual who has power over what information is released/published about him/her and the software that dictates that some information must be publicly accessible in order to represent an authentic profile of the individual. As collective intelligence inevitably rises, we must redefine what intelligence means. DeepMind is a company whose mission is focused on “solving intelligence” 4 although their focus is geared more towards developing artificial intelligence (AI) that reflects and imitates the decisions a human user would. I think that we tend to repeat ideas more than we expect or want to believe. AI best understand us through patterns and habits. They are programmed to reflect who we are, and it could be argued that we reinvent the wheel more often than it seems. Sometimes, that’s ok because that’s how we make sense of the world. We must be free to allow ideas, opinions, and digital presences to show patterns and repetition. Psychologically, habits are how we best identify any single person.
We place trust in machines because “humans are generally biased and there needs to be a robot to provide an impartial opinion.” 5 What is not well advertised is that robots are not exclusive – they are a direct product of human decisions and algorithms. As collective intelligence increases and our society moves from a orality to textuality (possible even to visuality), Ong would argue that authority no longer is defined in a conservative manner 6. Information is accessible to everyone, but authority has moved to specialized technology that has become to complex too understand. Malte Rehbien is a digital humanities scholar who still encourages us to criticize authority in the digital age because “technology is not value-free” 7, cannot consider contexts, nor are individuals made aware of the full extents of technology usage on them. That is why I partially agree with the “Right to be Forgotten,” which is an agreement developed by the European Union that allows users to request information to be removed from the internet if it damages their digital presence. The authority is removed slightly and returned back to the individual through this agreement.
Active Expression and Creativity that is enabled by technology
Because we are able to engage more with texts and the people who create content, the digital age is becoming one that thrives on emotional contexts (a combination of Ong’s 4th and 5th quality). People are more selectively empathetic and participatory, but are more engaged in those discussions that are directly related to them.
We are more free to use various forms of media to express ourselves, and not just textual formats. We still run into the issue of time as an abstract concept. “Snapchat” is a social sharing app that is based on creating temporary, visual stories. I am an inconsistent user of the app, and an even more hesitant user of the time filter. It is too abstract to know exactly at what time I was studying, for example. That is why a guiding principle should remind us of our ability to interpret and be emotionally cognizant of the situation. Time is still an abstract concept, and is even more abstract during the night when we don’t have the sun to gauge how late it is in the day.
The greatest enemy to expression is data and evidence. In the CMPD Report on Machine Learning, the earlier systems were “easily gamed,” so they retrained the data by adding more features to make the “parameters sufficiently complex.” 8 Because there is so much trust put into machine learning and digital inscription, personal expression is disabled by evidence. As we advance further into the digital age, we must work with data and evidence to provide opportunities for interpretation, agreement, and disagreement.
The freedom to forget and simplify
In the third episode of Black Mirror, “The Entire History of You,” there is an advertisement for the “good life” when you are able to remember every memory you have had, as you had a DVD player hooked to your mind’s eye all the time. I don’t agree with this as the “good life,” and Jorge Luis Borges wouldn’t either. In his short story, “Funes, el memorioso” a man named Itero Funes lives miserably because he is not overstimulated by remembering everything, but instead has almost lost a sense of meaning in life. I think that digital inscription must work in the same way that human memory does: we automatically filter out memories and details unless they are worth engraving into long-term memory 9. Technology should reflect how we naturally strive for privacy and selection of positive memories, and the “right to be forgotten” addresses this issue well 10.
Information overload and continuous production of “chatter” is a pattern that Herman Husse identified in his book The Glass Bead Game 11. This “chatter” is the only recognizable characteristic of an oral society that still exists within the current digital society. We must strive for a new meaning of complexity and simplicity. Most importantly, we and technology must learn how to forget.
Borges, Jorge Luis, Samuel César Palui, Ernesto Lowenstein, and Mirta Ripoll. Funes, El Memorioso.
Carton et al., “Identifying Police Officers at Risk of Adverse
Hesse, Hermann. The Glass Bead Game. S.l.: Penguin Books, 1943.
Jack Goody and Ian Watt. The consequences of literacy. In Jack Goody (ed.) Literacy in traditional societies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1968.
Johnson, Evan. “Beauty.AI Announces the First International Beauty Contest Judged by a.” PRWeb. 2015. Accessed September 25, 2016. http://www.prweb.com/releases/2015/11/prweb13088208.htm.
Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor. Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.
Norman, Donald A. Living with Complexity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.
Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2009.
Plato Phaedrus, Oxford World’s Classics
Rehbein, Malte. “On Ethical Issues of Digital Humanities.” Accessed August 19, 2016. http://www.phil.unipassau.de/fileadmin/dokumente/lehrstuehle/rehbein/Dokumente/OnEthicalIssuesPreprint.pdf.
Rowan, David. “DeepMind: Inside Google’s Super-Brain.” WIRED UK. Accessed August 18, 2016. http://www.wired.co.uk/article/deepmind
Toobin, Jeffrey. “The Solace of Oblivion,” The New Yorker, September 29, 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/29/solace-oblivion.
Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, New Accents (London ; New York: Methuen, 1982)