The Roundup for February 3-9, 2018 Edition

Layers, 2018, Toronto by Christopher Parsons

We generate a vast amount of digital exhaust which imperceptibly lingers around us. The metadata and content that’s left behind us is typically regarded as harmless until it’s used or abused, or until it’s misappropriated by someone.

Part of this exhaust follows from our regular shifting between services as our tastes, interests, attitudes, ambitions, and desires change. Social media platforms are adopted and abandoned. Fitness tracking systems that were exciting one year are dull the next and then forgotten, with the tracker consigned to a trash bin or electronics drawer and data residing in perpetuity with whatever service was collecting it. The data we’ve contributed to all those services lingers: it can come back to haunt us in ways we don’t understand or appreciate when signing up for the service, and it can be challenging to undo the associated harms when they befall us.

As part of my ongoing effort to clean up some of the exhaust I’ve left behind, I deleted an old Fitbit account a few weeks ago. It was a bit annoying — you need to contact support, click yes to some emails, and then support will delete the information — but after ten minutes or so the account and its data was consigned to the dustbin of the Internet. Similarly, I blew away over 32,000 tweets this week. I left the last six months data behind or so, but it means that there’s a long trace of exhaust that’s gone.1 And I’ll be undertaking similar operations for the rest of the year, or at least so I’ve planned.

In the case of the Fitbit data, it now rests securely in Apple Health, giving me a broader understanding of changes to my fitness activities than I previously enjoyed. I downloaded a copy of my tweets before wiping them away. And for personal blogs, I’m either consolidating them here or into a semi-local digital journal so I don’t lose what I’ve previously written. But if I’m serious it’s unlikely that I’m going to re-read (that many) of my old blogs. And I’m not looking at daily variations between today’s fitness regime and that of 2008. The data could do a lot more in other persons’ hands to harm me than in my own hands to benefit me, especially as I’ve moved away from where those blogs were active and the fitness communities where members engaged with one another.

The only thing that bothers me is that, in removing things from the Internet, I’m breaking the links that were inbound to those respective pieces of content. But…did anyone really link back to old tweets and, if they did, do I have a responsibility for their linking to what I tend to perceive as off-hand comments? Do I have to maintain and support now long-abandoned accounts on the presumption that someone might someday want to follow a link?

For a long time I would have said ‘yes’ to either of those statements. But I just don’t think that that’s a healthy attitude: humanity forgets. And then we rebuild the old it is in slightly different formats and in the (perceived) image of the past. I can’t imagine those old tweets, blogs, or fitness tracking data being so important that anyone will want to rebuild or remake what they once were and, if that is the case, then they’re welcome to follow in humanity’s ancient footsteps of imaging the past and superimposing their own aspirations, dreams, desires, and fears upon it.


Inspiring Quotations

Writing for friends and yourself can clear your thoughts, help you plan and invite the discovery of new ideas. Writing with the intention to put your thoughts out there leads to real writing. Writing gets real when it is read. Before that, it is a dream in letters. Writing to get read makes you careful, responsible, and considerate. It forces you to think as simply, clearly and understandably as possible. It forces you to think about how what you say may look and feel from the outside. Writing to be read may not be desirable for everybody. But if you feel that you have something to say, write to be read. Don’t search for something to write because you want to be famous or rich. If you want fame jump from a cliff into a butter bucket on YouTube. If you want to be rich, get into finance.

New Apps and Great App Updates from this Week

Great Photography Shots

I love these shots of Ice Caves in Iceland.

Photography by Matěj Kříž
Photography by Matěj Kříž
Photography by Matěj Kříž

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things

Footnotes

  1. Of course if a company or organization has previously scraped that data, which does happen, then those records will persist beyond my public deletion of the tweets.
  2. I’m really finding this great background music for just getting work done. Great moody music.

The Roundup for January 13-19, 2018 Edition

Boundaries
Boundaries by Christopher Parsons

I’ve been trying to clean up aspects of my digital past for the past six or eight months. To date, that’s mostly meant migrating content between a range of different platforms to consolidate it. The ultimate goal is to move all personal stuff to either a private journal or public blog (this one), all business and work-related stuff migrated to my professional website, permanently delete tens of thousands of old emails (and empty old email accounts),1 and re-evaluate the different social media accounts that I possess and close/delete at least some of them.

In the course of this digital cleanup I’ve stumbled across lots of old writings, communications, and thoughts. Most are pretty banal but others remind me of significant moments in my life. Small things, like the first time I signed a lease or received notice that I was accepted into graduate schools. Notifications of family health emergencies. And too many messages from friends to which I didn’t respond.

Why am I cleaning things up? In part, for privacy and security reasons. I’ve tried to keep a relatively ‘clean’ online profile but know that my more youthful self was less mindful of what was put online that I am today. There are regular stories about accounts being penetrated and documents either being directly leaked to the public or, worse, being selectively modified and then subsequently published. The best way of addressing such threats starts by getting rid of materials that might be used in such doxing operations and old accounts that might offer insight into my private life.

I think that the process of going through and deleting items, however, also stems from my distaste for how near-permanent retention affects human relationships. In his book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Victor Mayer Schonberger argues that humans have evolved to forget many of our interactions with one another in order to facilitate long-term relationships with one another. He impresses on the reader that it is important to add ‘forgetfulness’ to digital data collection processes and, as I wrote previously,

draws what are arguably correct theoretical conclusions (we need to get a lot better at deleting data to avoid significant normative, political, and social harms) while drawing absolutely devastatingly incorrect technological solutions (key: legislating ‘forgetting’ into all data formats and OSes).

We don’t remember all of the slights in a relationship, or all the harsh words spoken between one another, or even the abnormally positive comments or actions. As a result, we can have interactions with people who might have really upset us in the past because the reasons of that upset fade over time: we say that ‘time heals all wounds’ for a reason. It turns out that it’s because of human evolution!

So by retaining our memories permanently in a digital format there is the perpetual chance that we’re reminded of things that our minds have forgotten on our behalves. Perfect and permanent recollection isn’t the norm, and in our race to digitize and remember everything forever our technical aspirations are stepping beyond the nature of our bodies. Now we exceed our own bodily capabilities in lots of ways — humans are functionally cyborgs — but affecting our psychological interactions with one another strikes me, personally, as having potentially dangerous social implications. As a result, I tend to regard my current process of deleting parts of my past, forever, as a mental health practice as well as a practice linked to privacy or security.


The last few months of 2017 were hard for me. One of the ways that I know this is I took up hobbies that didn’t contribute to my development as a person and were, instead, simply pleasurable ways of wasting away time and trying to relax in the absence of doing anything of import. But it never really felt right: I had nothing to show at the end of the activities and typically wasn’t any happier with myself by the end of the recreation period.

Some of that is scar tissue from past relationships and past work-life imbalances.2 And some of it is linked to historical coping methods in periods of high stress. But this year I want to ensure that I find more productive outputs to relax so as to to find enjoyment in personal creation and to ensure that I can develop and grow as a person instead of just wasting away precious time. That doesn’t mean I’m never going to waste away time but, instead, that I want to be more deliberate and measured when I do decide to indulge in pointless recreation that doesn’t contribute to my personal enrichment.


Inspiring Quotation

“To make real change, you have to be well anchored – not only in the belief that it can be done, but also in some pretty real ways about who you are and what you can do.”

– Twyla Tharp

New Apps and Great App Updates from this Week

Great Photography Shots

Vincent Laforet strapped an iPhone 7 to the bottom of a Lear jet and then flew in a straight direction while activating the iPhone’s panorama mode. He’s sharing photos over at Instagram. They’re absolutely spectacular and show just what you can do with smartphone cameras.

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things

Footnotes

  1. I don’t delete the actual email accounts because I’m mindful of a company re-using my old usernames and them potentially transforming into a vector for phishing. Yahoo! did this to their users.
  2. It’s really hard for me to just take time to myself when that time isn’t productive in some sense. I can identify the reasons why but knowledge on its own isn’t sufficient to overcome the feeling of being ‘bad’.
Link

Plant Memories

Europeans citizens and their settlers have long treated the natural world as mere ‘stuff’ that can be manipulated to achieve our human-centric ends. It wasn’t that long ago that animals were regarded as dumb beasts without the ability to genuinely feel pain or have thoughts or memories. It turns out that our presumptions of plants are similarly undergoing radical reevaluations by some in the scientific community.

After training the plants, Gagliano withheld the light. When she next turned on the fans, she had switched them to the opposite branch of the Y shape. She wanted to see if the plants had learned to associate airflow with light, or its absence, strongly enough to react to the breeze, even if it was coming from a different direction, with no light as a signal. It worked. The plants that had been trained to associate the two stimuli grew toward the fan; the plants that had been taught to separate them grew away from the airflow.

“In that context, memory is actually not the interesting bit—of course you have memory, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to do the trick,” she says. “Memory is part of the learning process. But—who is doing the learning? What is actually happening? Who is it that is actually making the association between fan and light?”

It’s telling that Gagliano uses the word “who,” which many people would be unlikely to apply to plants. Even though they’re alive, we tend to think of plants as objects rather than dynamic, breathing, growing beings. We see them as mechanistic things that react to simple stimuli. But to some extent, that’s true of every type of life on Earth. Everything that lives is a bundle of chemicals and electrical signals in dialogue with the environment in which it exists. A memory, such as of the heat of summer on last year’s beach vacation, is a biochemical marker registered from a set of external inputs. A plant’s epigenetic memory, of the cold of winter months, on a fundamental level, is not so different.

It’s absolutely amazing to learn how much we do not know, and similarly striking that so many people actively work to prevent scientists from learning more about the natural world.