A Right to Ephemerality

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by TONY SALVADOR, Intel Corporation

trust picture from incubate

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”: http://www.appliedautonomy.com/ 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.

  3 comments for “A Right to Ephemerality

  1. A thought-provoking piece, but I’m a little confused on one point. You say, “What’s needed is a prior right – a right that prevents the recording in the first instance,” but you go on to say that a “right to ephemerality” is preferable to a “right not to be recorded.” So, what is it that is actually needed – a right against data recording, a right to data deletion, or a right to data decay? I’m intentionally sticking to individual rights rather than institutional duties, because, as you rightly remark, recording bodies cannot be entirely trusted to take actions that run counter to their own interests.

    I wish you would say a little more about how you envision this “right to emphemerality” being implemented. Digital ephemerality conjures up images of Snapchat and its silly (or seedy) self-destructing content. What you’re proposing is clearly more far-reaching and systematic, raising questions like: what are the benefits of decay vs outright deletion? Should all information be encoded to decay to some extent, or only upon personal request/if it meets certain criteria? What is the role of emerging market-based actors specializing in “accelerating” this ephemerality, such as Reputation VIP?

    • Thanks for your questions and comments! I suppose a short answer is that a right to ephemerality shouldn’t *have* to be implemented. Rather, intrusions, incursions and infiltrations on ephemerality need to be prevented; adjudicating assertions of competing rights, e.g., the right to protect my storefront v. the right to emphemerality should be decided, perhaps, on the basis of accumulation of power. Currently, an aggregate, but perhaps inadvertent result of all recording all the time is a concentration of social power in relatively few institutions. History doesn’t speak well of such things. So, one way to think about this is to think about power and authority — its accumulation, concentration and distribution and reverse the conversation one instance at a time.

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