“All that we are is the result of what we have thought”

… and so: “Targeted memory erasure and enhancement may be possible,” says neuroscientist Andre Fenton in response to that Guatama Siddharta quote.

This lecture appears to be part of a series on The Future of Hope. This explains why the talk focuses on the benefits of biomedical memory erasure to human mental development and defense against degenerative diseases as opposed to the possible problems.

The banner on the podium left me thinking of the cosmetic nature of this future practice. Cosmetics is about appearance and the treatments used to shape and maintain it. Those that seek cosmetic treatment usually submit themselves as the subject of appearance modification.

If neuroscience will indeed find a future on the cosmetic shelf, what forms then of ourselves will we fashion by it? Would we use neuroscience to design positive memories about ourselves and those we desire to value?

Fashionable memories of our own self image. If that is indeed the future, perhaps then all that we are is the result of what we have thought of ourselves.

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the virtue of planned erasure

Save by Delete Date, based on an idea by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

What if you were asked to set an expiration date for every file you saved on your computer? Imagine what would take place on that date. Your file would be automatically erased from your computer and anywhere else that it is stored. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger presents this idea in Delete : The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, a book that maps the changing landscape of human memory patterns on to the features, practices, and problems of digital storage and online sharing.

Permanence is the bias of information technology – “the net never forgets.” To Mayer-Schönberger technology has evolved from medium to medium to the detriment of forgetting. Forgetting is natural. Human evolution has not entailed an estimable promotion of the neurological capacity to remember. The virtue of forgetting is guaranteed by the mechanism of human evolution. If memory was key to human survival, the faculty would have evolved. The social consequence of this is mapped to familiar stories: a teacher fired for a compromising photo found on myspace, a social scientist denied entry to the United States for an admission of narcotics usage in a paper found by US Customs on Google, Dutch Jews identified and easily located by the Nazis through the detailed record keeping on all citizens by their government. Haunting stories of data permanence, information recalled out of context and stored out of control.

The ability to appropriate information without trace of original context is a digital affordance that must be programmed out of technology. Mayer-Schönberger proposes that digital storage devices and the content on them be given expiration dates restoring digital storage into a healthy reflection of the natural human capacity. At the very least the idea prompts users to consider the materiality of their electronic inscriptions.

Certainly there are challenges that may make this idea impossible to implement. First, every new piece of hardware will have to be shipped with instructions to engage in the deletion of files with an expiry date. Getting all manufacturers and software developers to agree with this and upon an effective deletion method will be a unique challenge, altogether different from the implementation of DVD regionalization since it will govern erasing and time keeping not just reading. Secondly, programmed erasure could be triggered by a simple date change on a computer or re-write of the meta data for a file to an earlier date.

Manufactured deletion may become as tiresome as planned obsolescence (coincidentally, both ideas were proposed within a depression: Delete in 2009, Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence in 1932). In Mayer-Schönberger’s brief historical narrative of the technological evolution toward “perfect memory”, a critical distinction is made about how memory is maintained. We can think of memory as a web page. With no links to it, the unit of memory is effectively forgotten. This model of memory is recognizable in how Facebook manages content deletion. Or memory can be viewed as constantly changing as it is recollected and thereby reconstructed into the present under changing conditions. Mayer-Schönberger argues that our selective and “constant reconstruction of our past based on the present” is a virtue if not critical for our survival:

Using generalizations, relying on conjecture, emphasizing the present, and respecting subsequent experiences, helps us to reason swiftly and economically, to abstract and generalize, and to act in time, rather than remain caught up in conflicting recollections. – Mayer-Schönberger, Delete.

But what guarantees the integrity of reconstructions of the past and keeps authority structures in check if not material evidence? Certainly photos or research papers may be taken out of context, but how will that change the will to use that information? Generalizations and conjectures that do not wrestle with the material and how to properly arrange it cannot become conclusions or theorems. Data permanence and the active and attentive pursuit to accurately employ it in a projection of the past on the present may better serve decision making than planned erasure. A study of the impact of decision support systems on organizations ought to make a strong case for a focus on preserving data, modeling it accurately, and recollecting it honestly.

And a concerted effort has to be made keep a link to digital objects active. What is inscribed is not necessarily there for ever, ready at hand. The internet is a network of electronic devices uniquely interfaced, all relying on different operating systems and storage formats. Data on storage devices may be there, readable, maintaining integrity in its format, but the reading devices – cd-rom drives, zip drives, floppy drives, tape drives – their logical modeling environments – operating systems and software packages – and the people that know how to operate it, all these agencies can become scarce, difficult, or expensive to employ in reconstructing digital memory. All combine to create a sense of loss motivating libraries and foundations to archive the web. To save it from an erasure that simply is digital objects taken offline.

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erasing in mind: of wax tablets and blank slates

this is not a blank slate

In the nature versus nurture debate, tabula rasa is a powerful image representing the idea of the mind as a “blank slate” open from birth to impression through learning and perception. Yet, the term is somewhat inaccurately translated and oddly restored from its historical context. To be accurate, tabula rasa ought to be translated as “scraped tablet”. To be historically precise, the phrase should be considered within the context of a time in which writing tables were common. John Locke more likely imagined an erased writing table than a blank slate. Suddenly the idea that humans are born with an erased page clear and ready for impression possesses a curious possibility: was the page completely erased?

That idea is not without precedent. Wax tablets, writing tables, Freud’s Mystic Pad. The idea of the mind as comparable to an inscription technology often focused on surfacing the primordial erasure. Anne Whitehead begins her book Memory describing the role of the wax tablet as a working metaphor in Plato and Aristotle’s distinguishable thoughts on memory. For Plato, “the soul enters at birth into oblivion and is covered with a layer of wax on which there is as yet no impression. However, it seems that the wax tablet is not completely wiped clean: there remain imprints of the Ideas, so that we retain a latent knowledge of them.” Important within the very introduction of the inscription medium as a memory metaphor is not only the ability for memory erasure, but an erased memory as the primary condition.

Aristotle was more intrigued by the materiality of the wax tablet and thereby the physical process of memory. “Something is literally stamped into the body, an impression with physiological features, a material trace,” Whitehead quotes Douwe Draaisma‘s description of the wax tablet in Aristotle. Recollection for Aristotle is to access an object of perception from the past. For Plato, the emphasis is on recollecting what was impressed in the wax before the erasure of birth. To Aristotle, “recollection is an autonomous, independent, and self-motivated search.” For Plato, “the process of recollection inevitably involves somebody else.”

The inscription metaphor for memory has had a strong grip on the imagination since Plato and Aristotle. Whitehead’s book is an introduction to the sets of literary and cultural studies that can be classified as memory studies. She follows the inscription metaphor through to contemporary directions in the field to emphasize the continuity in thought on memory. Noticeable in this account is the increasingly subtle connection between memory and the transformations that took place in writing technology since the wax tablet. Reading and writing become simply remembering or forgetting as if electronic writing technology is completely volatile and traceless in effortless reproduction.

Recognizing the shift to collective memory under the inscribing trauma of wars in the 20th century and in reflection on the divergent perspectives of Ricoeur and Derrida, Whitehead argues that the emphasis on memory studies today is footed in forgetting. A precarious foothold, tense with materiality – objects against forgiveness. A tense space held between the hard places of amnesia and amnesty. In amnesia the psychological and material trace is buried and ignored. In amnesty the trace is put out of reach by law. A challenge focused on forgetting without amnesia and forgiving without erasing the medium. An unresolved place. A place in which to “dwell a little longer.” The slate is not blank.

Following the material trace in memory studies in Whitehead’s research draws out two observations concerning erasure. First, thought appears to have shifted from the collective attempt at reading the erasure in the wax tablet to a collective effort at making a proper erasure of collective memory. Second, the shift has the consequence of maintaining the power of the contemporary technologies of inscription as metaphorical conception of memory, but without a thorough material examination of the mechanisms of inscription and erasure. As with the tabula rasa, a conception of the inscription surface as a blank slate has erased the logical and physical objects that are the erasable writing table.

The Spartan Demaratus sent a message of warning to the Greeks of an imminent battle. The message was inscribed on the wood frame under the wax of a wax tablet. This story is commonly told as part of the history of stenography, the practice of hiding a message in plain sight. Whether John Locke was aware of it, his tabula rasa has a hidden message inscribed under a simple layer of translation and contextualization.

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importing forgetfullness, staging erasure

Writing Tables Erasing Mind

Erasability was an important feature of the Renaissance writing tables. These little books were heralded for their functionality, portability, affordability, and by some accounts, their value for reflection upon the human condition.

In “Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England” Peter Stallybrass, Roger Chartier, Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe inquire into the thinking about this writing technology through Shakespeare’s characterization of Hamlet and his writing table. By cataloging the technical dimensions and physical workings of the Renaissance writing table meaningful reflections on the material understanding of personal memory emerge.

The writing table freed the renaissance writer from accepted place of inscription. Writing tables were personal, highly portable writing devices comprised of pages treated with a compound that allowed for inscription with a scratch of a metal stylus and erasure with a rub of a wet finger. The authors tell of the emerging industry and popular acquisition of the writing table in England through the course of the 17th and 18th century. Practical for its price in comparison to the costliness of paper. Popular and affordable to a wide cross section of the literate population. Elegantly bound and therefore a popular gift. Commonly derided for its increased association with “weak” dramatists – using their tables to copy ideas from other people’s plays – and “weak” puritan women – tables in hand at church to accumulate “crums of comfort” (sic).

Nevertheless, this personal writing medium remained popular and found a firm place in the human activity of remembrance. The authors describe the intermediary role the device played in handling memories. Out in the world, the user of the writing table would transcribe their thoughts, often in a type of shorthand. Filtering and distilling their notes occurred in the act of copying the writing table by hand on to paper with ink. The authors emphasize this act of repetition. “Repetition is itself a memorial system.”  The repetition inscribes memory with meaningful organization and a sense of value. For the authors this in turn emphasizes the extension of the writing table to mind in Renaissance culture. A beholden extension where erasing from “one’s tables” is to erase from one’s mind.

A memorialization of the ability to forget and a sense of permanence in the act of organizing thought in the transposition to paper. The authors argue that Hamlet is caught in the gripping illusion. Securing himself in the technologies of permanence and of erasure. But the environment betrays the affordance of selectivity in the writing tables. All around Hamlet, surfaces of inscription resonate with erasability – graves are opened, tombstones incomplete, the Ghost’s suit of armor fades, a father’s royal command rendered immaterial. Technologies of permanence are recognized as a virtualization process, sustaining an illusion of permanence in the process of moving notes from writing tables to parchment, of the body to a tombstone, of memory to the fixed place of material permanence. In response, Hamlet subverts the process by a deliberate act of transcribing the shorthand of his writing table to mind and heart: “Full charactered with lasting memory, / Which shall aboue that idle rancke remaine / Beyond all date euen to eternity”.

Transcription out of the haunting memory of the father and the memory of the beloved drowned in the stream that flows to the sea of oblivion.

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deleting texts: a formal and forensic materiality

To combat the cultural expectation of the fleeting electronic text and the “illusion of immaterial behavior” that the digital environment projects, Matthew Kirschenbaum brings into focus the mechanisms that facilitate inscription and transmission in Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination.

Key to this discussion is Krischenbaum’s classification of forensic and formal materiality. Forensic materiality is used to refer to the physical manipulation of magnetic impressions on the rotating platters of hard drives.  He emphasizes the stability of the trace on the hard disk drive, recounting stories of data recovered from “deleted” drives sold on eBay to those hard drives excavated and completely restored from the ground zero site at the World Trade Center. Formal materiality on the other hand is an emphasis on the manipulation of symbols. We experience it as buttons on the screen or a blank page that we fill with writing. These are negotiations between applications and the operating system, conceptual and logical objects, beneath which occurs the material exchanges of inscription and erasure on the physical object, the hard disk drive.

Formally, an erasure can take place on the computer screen as file in the trash can or sentence in a document deleted. The file, however, forensically may remain intact on the hard drive as a physical object. Physical erasure takes place at a variable granularity of the trace, the inscription.

Kirschenbaum’s work is primarily concerned with accurately preserving digital works which accounts for his immersion into the substratum of the electronic text. In this he follows historical precedent in literary theory: “we can effectively address questions of literary history or interpretation … until we know how books have been created and reproduced; how books have been preserved and destroyed.”

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linking to other media + materiality projects

A hyperlink seldom tells us where we will be physically drawing information from. The suffix in the URL string may hint at a country, but the IP address that the URL serves is a more accurate indication of the content’s physical location. Conceptually we are dealing with information that is ready at hand – available at our fingertips rather than distant and requiring transmission.

These links are to projects presented in the Media + Materiality Class at the New School University and were located using yougetsignal.com

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the object of deletion

Three Classes of the Digital Object

The way of expressing deletion typically references a media device or a content platform from which the erasure is performed. The idea of a digital object comes into play mainly in a discussion about effective archiving practices and not deletion practices.

“What does it mean to preserve digital objects?” asks Kenneth Thibodeau in his essay on digital preservation. Where he addresses the challenge of fully preserving the digital object, one can recognize the challenge of fully deleting a digital object. The challenges to preservation that include “policy questions, institutional roles and relationships, legal issues, and intellectual property rights” seem to be the very same challenges to deletion. So then it may help to import the model that Thibodeau introduced to understand the object of preservation. The digital object is defined within three classes each with unique properties: a physical object, a logical object, and a conceptual object. A model to be represented here under a different question: “What does it mean to delete a digital object?”

Erasing content from a hard drive is to manipulate an object that is altogether physical, logical, and conceptual. The physical object is the inscription on the hard drive – magnetic impressions performed planographically, heads floating on air over the spinning platters. The logical object is the manipulated unit of binary clusters ordered and processed through the computing infrastructure. It is the page source behind the “page source”. And the conceptual object is the projection on the screen or through the speakers that we recognize. It is the object we handle as if an object.

“Obviously, we have to preserve digital objects as physical inscriptions, but that is insufficient,” writes Thibodeau and so embarks on establishing the complexities that may manifest across the levels. For example, preserving a web page may mean tracking down all the related files (stylesheet, images, javascript libraries) and viewing software and its settings (firefox 3 with adobe flash 10) that establish and define the page.

But when we think of deletion, Thibodeau’s statement of the obvious is anything but. We might rather say, “Obviously, we have to remove that picture from the web page.” Removal of the picture is related to the conceptual object of the page at a specific URL hosted from a specific IP address. But the digital object, removed from conceptual awareness, may remain largely unchanged as a logical and physical object. And this does not mean that it is no longer a conceptual object either – it may be still something within a different operating environment. The deleted file could still conceivably be something in the desktop trash can, something in the data recovery software. The deleted Facebook picture remains a picture, only without the frame.

The picture at the top of this post is an illustration of deletion at the site of the three different classes of the digital object. The representation is deceiving, but meaningful. The conceptual object here is a music file. It will bypass the “recycle bin” when the shift key is held and the file dragged. However, within the hex or disk viewer the digital object will still be accessible, verifying that as a logical object the digital object is still intact. Only if the file is securely wiped will the disk editor represent the logical object deleted. But then methods of logically deleting a file vary as Peter Gutmann’s discussion on secure methods of erasing hard drives demonstrate. Also, there is the presence of a blank space to consider within the logical composition of the hard disk. A palimpsest indicating something was here – an absence that in the ordering of the rest of the disk drive may be rather telling. Then there is the representation of the hard drive performing a file deletion. It too is problematic. Behind the arbitrary seeming motions over the flat surface are targeted inscriptions. Under a Magnetic Force Microscope it is evident that these inscriptions are not necessarily perfectly inscribed, so deletions or overwrites can be detected. Somewhat like the frayed edges of a billboard, the physical inscription on a hard drive can be imperfectly overlaid – preserving some trace of the deleted digital object at the physical level.

MFM erase band

source: R. D. Gomez, A. A. Adly, and I.D. Mayergoyz . “Magnetic Force Scanning Tunneling Microscope Imaging of Overwritten Data.” IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON MAGNETICS, VOL. 28, NO. 5, SEPTEMBER 1992, 3141.

“There is an inherent paradox in digital preservation. On the one hand, it aims to deliver the past to the future in an unaltered, authentic state. On the other hand, doing so inevitably requires some alteration,” concludes Thibodeau. For the eraser, the aim is to deliver the future from the past. There may not be the paradox, but there is a paradigm. Deletion as an act of forgetting to make way for new memories, more space on the drive, depends on a certain perception that the deleted object will rest in the flush of entropy – traces in their minutia and multitude decaying and fading. But as drive space increases, as revision control normalizes in document management, and as backups and cloud computing standardize, conservation of digital objects may become an affordance of digital storage.

Recognizing beyond the screen a stubborn persistence of the digital object, the question of “what does it mean to delete a digital object” summons a reflection upon the notion of a deletable object. What is it? What does it mean? Why does it matter?

The object (n.) of deletion.
The tangible and visible thing that will be deleted.
The object (n.) of deletion.
The goal that will be attained by performing the act of deleting.
The object (v.) of deletion.
An opposition coming from the performed deletion.

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Is the EU “right to be forgotten” a “right to delete”?

EU "Right to Forget"

”Internet users must have effective control of what they put online and be able to correct, withdraw or delete it at will. What happens if you want to permanently delete your profile on a social networking site? Can this be done easily? The right to be forgotten is essential in today’s digital world.” – Viviane Reding, Europe’s rights commissioner (via Sydney Morning Herald)

The emphasis in the question of “what happens” is on how efficiently a user can execute their will to be removed from social networks. But what about the material record, the bits on the hard drive, the trace. What happens physically when you delete your profile online or on a social networking site?

Does the EU Data protection reform address this? Documentation of the proposal discusses the reach of the policy change which includes “police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters.” However, nowhere does the proposal discuss how the material trace of the deleted content is to be handled. To what degree must the storage devices be sanitized? The problem is revealed in the language used to discuss the proposal. Phrases such as  “permanently delete”, “data fully removed”, and even “the right to be forgotten” must surely imply a modicum of physical certainty.

[T]here should be a “right to be forgotten,” which means that individuals should have the right to have their data fully removed when it is no longer needed for the purposes for which it was collected. People who want to delete profiles on social networking sites should be able to rely on the service provider to remove personal data, such as photos, completely.” – EU Data protection reform FAQ

The proposal appears to fundamentally ground itself in a presupposition that memory resides in reconstruction, therefore removal amounts to unlinking content from connections. Where this thinking will become problematic is in how it will figure the relationship of the persisting trace of deleted content to criminal investigations and proceedings. If citizens enact their government endowed right to be forgotten, to have content deleted, their social media account closed – will the trace remains of the deleted content be admissible evidence in court?

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deleting photos from facebook & CDN awareness

Delete This Photo

Delete a photo on Facebook and it will persist on the social network’s content delivery network and be accessible via a direct link for as long as two and a half years, reports Ars Technica. The issue was first raised by researchers at Cambridge University in 2009.

“It’s possible that someone who previously had access to a photo and saved the direct URL from our content delivery network partner could still access the photo. … However, again, the person would have to know the URL, and the photo only exists in the CDN’s cache for a limited amount of time. We’re working with the CDN to reduce the amount of time that the photo remains in its cache.” – Facebook spokesperson Simon Axten

Now if you hit delete this photo on Facebook you may very well start thinking about whether it is really deleted. Specifically, is it off the content delivery network. And herein is the new thing that enters into our awareness. The content delivery network or CDN is a a distributed computing environment that facilitates optimized delivery of content by hosting and serving copies from geographically dispersed computer systems.

The CDN makes Facebook fast. But the speed of Facebook isn’t what drew our attention to it. We use it without knowing about it. Always ready-at-hand. Awareness of the CDN came into focus only when users experienced a loss of agency. A loss of the ability to delete. The delete button is broken. So the object comes into view, but users and even Facebook are having trouble talking about it. The photo is in the cache, but can that not be cleared? The photo is on backup systems, but how is it then accessible? The photo is removed, but is that the same as deletion?

With the content delivery network present-at-hand, uncertainty is showing itself in the everyday understanding of deletion. Material concern tending to forensic materiality of deletion?

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undelete at your local drugstore

The Walgreens Code by beelzebozo

Translation: Now Accepting Applications for Media Recovery Service Department

A drugstore chain is now in the media recovery business. Customers can bring in their USB drives, flash disks, or hard drives for recovery of deleted files. Walgreens offers the new service at more than 7,500 locations across the United States. The company is positioning this service as a natural extension of their photo department. Customers who trust Walgreens with their photo printing would also with the retrieval of their deleted photos.

“Sooner or later every digital camera user has the misfortune of losing a photo, and I know from experience this can be heartbreaking … we’re pleased to offer a solution that can help customers get back their cherished photos and along with them their peace of mind.” – Walgreens general merchandise manager of photo and front-end services

When peace of mind is at stake, it takes confidence to deliver the physical remnant of lost memories to someone else. Since customers may not have the skill to recover lost data themselves, they will look to someone else. Walgreens believes they will want to entrust it with someone local.

Until now, says the press release, “the only options for customers with lost digital photos were do-it-yourself recovery software or expensive and unknown mail-in recovery services.” Yet that is exactly what Walgreens will be doing. FlashFixers is the third party company that will be performing the retrieval service. They offer the software and mail-in recovery service on their website for the same price that Walgreens will be reselling the service: $39.99.

Will this bring media forensics to popular culture? Will it affect the perception of the materiality of deletion? Really, I just look forward to hearing stories of files being retrieved at Walgreens providing evidence that X was doing Y with Z. Hopefully in a rap.

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