Advancing the Value of Ethnography

A Right to Ephemerality


Seems that everyone’s recording everything all the time – so much so, that people and some governments are asserting a “right to forget”. But the act of recording at all in any instance also is, significantly, an act of control: the more recording, the more control such that “recording everything” would, arguably, lead to the total control. And total control would lead to a de facto, if not actual global authoritarian regime. And despite the dystopian nature of this account, this is precisely the direction we are heading.

Therefore, a “right to forget”, while a delightful, human-emotional analogue – and therefore readily relatable and marketable – is merely an insidious illusion, a misdirection, a sleight of thinking. This is because there are no controls sufficient to protect the individual in society if a recording occurs. A right to forget requires the recording entity to take positive action against their own interest. This is untenable in the long run and frankly just stupid.

What’s needed is a prior right – a right that prevents the recording in the first instance. A “right to ephemerality” is a fundamental right to transience, to decay, to the timeliness and timelessness of “the now”, to the momentary “happening” that fades with neuro-biological time.

Most importantly, a right to ephemerality is different than a “right to not be recorded” if only because a “right to ephemerality” securely ensconces power with the individual and not with the state or with the “other” recording entity. My right to ephemerality is “my right” to assert, it is not someone else’s right to “grant”. Moreover, a “right to ephemerality” is positive assertion rather than a negation, the latter of which is more easily subject to exception given the starting point resides with the “other”.

Realistically exercising the Right to Ephemerality will take time. In the meantime, we can work toward a three pronged approach:

  1. Continue to nurture and further specific a “right to be forgotten”, a la the EU. It’s still early days, and it’s fraught with challenges.
  2. Develop “countermeasures”. I am reminded of the work of the “Institute of Applied Autonomy”: as an example in this space. We need both more of these kinds of examples and they need to be increasingly practical for everyday practice.
  3. We should work together as an EPIC community convene a “Cold Spring Harbor”-like event to develop a blueprint for the practical exercise of the Right to Ephemerality.

It will take a concerted, collective effort to shift the power currently designed into our global socio-technical systems. This may be one of several key socio-technical design tasks facing the world today and one our community may be uniquely talented and skilled to address.

About The Author:
Tony SalvadorTony Salvador currently directs research in the Experience Insights Lab within Intel Corporation. His team’s role is to identify new, strategic opportunities for technology based on an understanding of fluctuating, global socio-cultural values.



Tony Salvador, Intel Corporation