In a recent story in the New York Times, Brian Chen cheerfully advises us on how to set our Google data to self-destruct. He says
It’s difficult to imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to take advantage of Google’s auto-delete tools. There’s no practical benefit to letting Google keep a history of our online activities from years back. So don’t delay in wiping a tiny bit of your digital traces away.
Argh. Destroying digital traces is sad. It’s dangerous. It’s quite literally self-destructive.
We are all of us moving at speed. As individuals and as communities, we are flying through time. We move so quickly it’s more and more difficult to sustain the continuities of experience and selfhood that were once the hallmarks of a stable life and a coherent identity.
There is a strong argument to make that says we should NOT throw away our Google data away, any more than we would routinely jettison our photos. This stuff is absolutely critical as a record of who we were and where we’ve been.
I was once in charge of an Institute of Contemporary Culture (at the Royal Ontario Museum). Our job was to document and archive contemporary culture. Then came the iPhone, the blog, and Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok. By George, we said, we think they’ve got it. Contemporary culture is now documenting itself.
Everyone is now their own curator. If and when we want to examine the archival record for clues to help explain that romantic choice, that professional decision, or that life transformation, we have rich data to work with. Absolutely essential to this database are the Google traces of selfhood: the searches on line and the locations in the world (as captured on Maps). This stuff is completely precious.
Google to the rescue. With its genius for data management, who better to help assemble the data and draw the patterns out? We can imagine a personal space on line that might feel like a Victorian library (as pictured), filled with data sources and the archival acumen necessary to turn our digital traces into a time machine, a Google time machine, with which to visit, say, the year 2011. That’s not very long ago. But doesn’t it now seem decades away? What the hell were we thinking? Who the hell were we?
We understand why Google has made it possible to erase these data. It’s a matter of privacy. And, yes, Google, bless it, has been more scrupulous on this issue than other keepers of our data, some of whom exhibit a persistent ineptitude while others seem driven by motives darker and perhaps malevolent.
Good on you, Google. But this data is precious. Some of it is more precious that our privacy. Discourage us in our self-destruction. Help us act as archivists.
Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. He is the author of 12 books including most recently Chief Culture Officer, Culturematic, and Dark Value. He is the founder of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum and, more recently, of the Artisanal Economies Project. Grant has taught at the Harvard, University of Cambridge, and MIT. He has advised Google, Ford Foundation, Simon and Schuster, Kanye West, Netflix, Boston Book Festival, Nike, and the White House (no, the other one).
Thanks to Jeff Kleinzweig for the use of his wonderful library.