Governments, companies, individuals – we’re all hoardersThe UK’s Information Commissioner wants us all to take care that information held on each of us is accurate. But maybe there’s just too much on record these days. Martin Brampton opines…
Last week I looked at the problem of coping with the exponential growth in data storage. One question has been begged, though. What are we going to do with this ever-increasing volume of data? Why do we want it?
Well, some of it is just the convenient storage of material that used to be impossible to store. Now that my mobile phone can take photographs, my PC contains a growing volume of family snaps. Years ago, they were bits of shiny paper accumulating in the bottom of a drawer somewhere. Now they contribute to the periodic need for a PC upgrade.
Fancy formatting is another factor in the growth of data. Personally I try to resist the use of different typefaces and sizes in emails, as it seems to me to detract from the simplicity and immediacy that is a desirable characteristic of basic text email. All the same, I’m receiving increasing volumes of HTML email and not all of it is advertising for over-the-internet prescription medicines and such like.
But a lot of the growth is connected with keeping more information. Nowadays, it seems that most people retain every email sent or received. And that obviously means that each email is stored at least twice, and often many times, given the tendency to copy emails to all and sundry. Given that much email is material that might once have been transmitted verbally, that is a lot of new data storage.
I can’t help wondering how this alters our world. We have looked at the issues raised by government forever improving the organisation of the information it holds on us. Another technology that so far seems generally acceptable is the widespread use of CCTV. Much of what we do is now recorded (digitally, of course) and retained for arbitrary periods.
All this looks a very mixed blessing. Optimists argue that the increased visibility of our every action restores us to the situation where people lived in small communities. Each individual was recognised and held responsible for anti-social actions, giving a much more cohesive society with less crime.
Pessimists suspect that this rosy view is all in the imagination. Small communities can easily be deeply oppressive and not necessarily free from serious crime. It has been one of the achievements of modernity to forge the idea of the individual as someone who is free to do as they please so long as no harm comes to others. There should be no need to account for one’s every action.
And that seems to be something we are in danger of abandoning. Certainly, it can be useful to find that forgotten telephone number in an old email or that tip on how to solve a problem that has recently surfaced. Retaining so much old material has downsides, though, in encouraging people to fight never ending battles with more and more backing from electronic records.
There is some justice in being confronted with one’s old mistakes and, as one who writes judgments and sometimes predictions about technology trends, I am painfully aware of this. But surely it is also a desirable feature of human life that we make our mistakes and pass on. Not ignoring the mistakes but not dwelling on them either.
Stopping the trends is probably impossible. So it looks as if we will simply have to adjust to living in a world where our every action is recorded and even the most trivial of our communications is filed forever. Our old shopping lists are stored away in computers for a lifetime to provide the raw material for customer relationship management, whether we want our relationships managed or not. Perhaps it is all leading up to us finding that judgment day is part of this life and not, as was previously thought, an after life.