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The Value of Forgetting Long Term

by Kevin Kelly on August 26th, 02007

Clive Thompson riffs on a piece by the New York Times public editor discussing the dilemma of what to do with old news items that are now badly out of date. They are small to the public but large to the folks involved, who often want them either amended or deleted. It’s a great piece about long-term responsibility: if you keep an archive are you obliged to keep it updated? You can read about it here. Clive reposts this bit:

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, has a different answer to the problem: He thinks newspapers, including The Times, should program their archives to “forget” some information, just as humans do. Through the ages, humans have generally remembered the important stuff and forgotten the trivial, he said. The computer age has turned that upside down. Now, everything lasts forever, whether it is insignificant or important, ancient or recent, complete or overtaken by events.

Following Mayer-Schönberger’s logic, The Times could program some items, like news briefs, which generate a surprising number of the complaints, to expire, at least for wide public access, in a relatively short time. Articles of larger significance could be assigned longer lives, or last forever.

Mayer-Schönberger said his proposal is no different from what The Times used to do when it culled its clipping files of old items that no longer seemed useful. But what if something was thrown away that later turned out to be important? Meyer Berger, a legendary Times reporter, complained in the 1940s that files of Victorian-era murder cases had been tossed.

“That’s a risk you run,” Mayer-Schönberger said. “But we’ve dealt with that risk for eons.”