Why we should let our digital data decay

With the cost of storage so cheap, we have all become digital hoarders. Letting data expire and self-delete might be the best way to clear the clutter

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 October, 2015, 1:45pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 October, 2015, 1:45pm

What do you do with 64,000 photos? That's how many can fit onto the latest record-breaking microSD Card designed for smartphones, whose 200GB size can store a staggering 200 hours of video, 100 video games or 3,300 hours of music. Its slogan is "never stop shooting, saving, and sharing", and that's exactly how we live our digital lives.

The SanDisk Ultra microSDXC UHS-I memory card isn't cheap but, elsewhere, storage is easy to come by. So cheap has it become, in fact, that none of us are deleting anything any more. The cloud has become a commodity that's often given away free in the hope that we'll upgrade; Dropbox, Google Drive and Apple's iCloud can not only sync files between devices, but act as backup locations and, yes, dumping grounds for files to sort later.

When it comes to the physical sphere, most people in Hong Kong are minimalists by necessity. A few years ago it was fashionable to experiment in "lifestyle design" by spurning physical objects and living out of a laptop, while professional travellers, businesspeople and gear freaks are constantly refining their capsule wardrobes. But what good is a minimalist approach to only some areas of your life? Even if photos, files, emails and endless social media uploads don't take up physical space, doesn't our lack of ability to delete data from the cloud suggest that something's wrong? We have all become digital hoarders.

"With the cloud we are able to store more data, much more easily and have it more readily available than ever before," says Niall McBain, CEO of in-flight entertainment creator Spafax, who was raised in Hong Kong and remains a frequent visitor. "Digital minimalism has only increased the rate at which we remove physical, analogue items in favour of their digital counterparts - why have an entire library of books when you can have more books than you will probably ever read in your life on a Kindle?" That's a good question, but here's another; what's the point in having more than a few dozen ebooks? Probably the most liberating thing a Kindle owner can do is to delete any book unread for more than a year.

But deleting digital files and wiping data goes against everything we've learned about the internet and digital life. "Currently, 'forgetting' data by deliberately deleting it routinely requires more effort than having it preserved," says Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance and regulation at Oxford University and author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. "This increases the 'cost' of digital forgetting, and thus tilts the default towards preservation. As a consequence, digital minimalists need to spend significant time and effort to get rid of data."

Living as a digital minimalist is almost impossible; the constant decision making and pruning of files is time-consuming. With the cost of storage so low and falling all the time, routinely deleting data doesn't save you money.

Every time we upload a photo to Facebook, Weibo or Twitter, we're adding to the digital detritus, but to talk of a digital overload is mistaken. The vast majority of us choose this behaviour, and the world is not short on storage space. What it is short on, however, is privacy and data protection, which is precisely why the tracking, recording, storing and archiving of everything we do online, and everything we produce digitally, is alarming. The reason, of course, is a loss of context. Your web search history from 10 years ago still exists, but taken completely out of context, could it damage your reputation? Could it shame or upset you? Probably. The same goes for your emails, private messages and social network posts.

At the end of 2014 there was outcry when Facebook's new automated "Year in Review" feature trawled through timelines and extracted "highlights", inevitably reminding parents of the tragic loss of a child. Facebook didn't do this on purpose, but the conclusion is obvious; the internet is not human. "If we assume, and it is a fair assumption, that our cognitive system - the human brain - has evolved over tens of thousands of years to do its job pretty well, then it makes sense to have our digital tools mimic how we remember and forget as humans," says Mayer-Schönberger. "That is, not in a binary fashion - all or nothing - but in a more gradual fashion. That kind of digital rusting, as I call it, is suitable because it not only forgets over time, but the very fact of decay is a strong signal to humans that the memory is old, and potentially no longer accurate or relevant."

Allowing data to expire and self-delete might be the most effective way to prevent our digital detritus from owning us. It might seem an esoteric debate, but there is a clear demand for apps and services with short memories. The Snapchat app sends messages, photos and videos that expire after 10 seconds, while Whisper is all about anonymous messages. Twitter now allows messages to be irretrievable after a week, while private SMS can be sent via apps such as Gryphn and Seecrypt. Private networks are booming; the internet is becoming less permanent, and being revamped for a future where digital decay is normal and where digital leakage is plugged.

Google searches aside (the de facto internet archive isn't about to delete its own gold mine of data), people are now routinely setting time limits on their digital data. "Expiration dates for data would make remembering a bit harder and forgetting a bit easier, and so counter the current incentive to preserve, at least to an extent," says Mayer-Schönberger. "In that way, expiration dates help preserve privacy. But expiration dates do not solve all privacy challenges, and their most lasting effect may not be that data is deleted at a certain date, but that as we are requested to set expiration dates we are reminded that most data is not relevant and valuable forever." In short, we'll take fewer photos, upload less, and cherry-pick only the most precious to preserve "forever". The internet will gradually become more real.

Of course, there are downsides to replacing digital durability with digital decay in the way the internet works. If you forgot to set a long expiry-limit on your collection of family photos and videos, they could be gone forever after a certain date. When precious digital memories are inevitably deleted forever by accident, that's not going to be easy. Nor would be the loss of emails and insurance documents just prior to a tax investigation. The expiration of data could also rid criminals of their past convictions, or allow dictators and nation states to rewrite history unchallenged.

While some compliance rules require data retention - something that encourages companies to retain everything they do, digitally, forever - there are also data protection laws in many parts of the world to ensure that data that is no longer needed, relevant or accurate is deleted. Either way, it's not the internet's fault. "Permanence is something we bestow on digital data, it is not a genuine quality of digital data," says Mayer-Schönberger. "Just as easily as we can design digital data systems that preserve data, we can build systems that are more forgetful."