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The End of Cyberspace

One of the reasons that predictions about the death of the library, office, workplace, book, etc. in the age of the Internet have not come to pass is that these older institutions or technologies had uses that went beyond the strictly functional ones of information processing, storage, retrieval, etc.. Offices, for example, aren’t just places where knowledge workers move zeros and ones around; the good ones are creative spaces that offer workers access to unique stores of informal knowledge.

A second reason that bits haven’t triumphed over atoms is that some activities or functions look the same when done by computers (or networks) and people (or institutions), but turn out to have subtle but critical differences. Two examples recently crossed my radar.

First was a New York Times article detailing how it’s getting harder to expunge criminal records:

In 41 states, people accused or convicted of crimes have the legal right to rewrite history. They can have their criminal records expunged, and in theory that means that all traces of their encounters with the justice system will disappear…. But real expungement is becoming significantly harder to accomplish in the electronic age. Records once held only in paper form by law enforcement agencies, courts and corrections departments are now routinely digitized and sold in bulk to the private sector. Some commercial databases now contain more than 100 million criminal records. They are updated only fitfully, and expunged records now often turn up in criminal background checks ordered by employers and landlords…. Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, a lawyer in Miami, tells her clients that expungement is a waste of time. “To tell someone their record is gone is essentially to lie to them,” Ms. Rodriguez-Taseff said. “In an electronic age, people should understand that once they have been convicted or arrested that will never go away.” Judge Stanford Blake, whose court often enters expungement orders, said his inability to make them effective had left him feeling frustrated and helpless.

“It’s a horrible situation,” said Judge Blake, the administrative judge of the criminal division of the Eleventh Circuit Court in Miami. “It’s the ultimate Big Brother, always watching you.”

This case demonstrates something that Ellen Ullman argued in her brilliant essay «Memory and Megabytes:» namely, that there’s a big difference between human and computer memory, and we tend to overlook the critical differences between them.

Computers are indiscriminate rememberers. This is a very good thing if they’re keeping track of bank records or subatomic events, but it’s more problematic when it’s applied to the world of more complex human affairs. This is because individuals are much more selective about what they remember, and societies actively negotiate what they choose to remember and call attention to.

First, the case of individuals. Forgetting insults and painful events, we all recognize, is a pretty healthy thing for individuals: a well-adjusted person just doesn’t feel the same shock over a breakup after ten years (if they can even remember the name of Whoever They Were), nor do they regard a fight from their childhood with anything but clinical detachment. Collectively, societies can also be said to make decisions about what they choose to remember, and how to act toward the past. Sometimes this happens informally, but has practical reasons: think of national decisions of avoid deep reflection on wars or civil strife, in the interests of promoting national unity and moving forward.

Sometimes, though, that forgetting is the product of formal social negotiation. For a long time, our actions as youths have been understood to be separable from adulthood, and we’ve agreed that bad things that kids do shouldn’t always count against them as adults. Likewise, there are expiration dates on most bad actions. Someone who does jail time for a crime is supposed to have paid their debt to society. We feel a little uncomfortable when politicians have thirty year-old college arrests splashed in the news (it’s not a big thing, it was a long time ago); we may have mixed feelings about a 83 year-old woman who’s deported for serving as a guard at a Nazi prison camp in her youth (yes, it’s bad, but is it too harsh to throw an elderly woman out of the country where her husband is buried?). Of course, there are some deeds that are too serious to ever outlive: serial killers don’t get second chances.

Increasingly, however, thanks to the imposition of computers on what been a psychologically nuanced and socially negotiated activity, those second chances are becoming harder to come by. Just as important, the chance to move beyond past bad events— both ones done by you, and ones done to you— is starting to slip. Computers remember, but they don’t mature; people can forget in ways that computers don’t, and that’s one reason they do.

The second example comes from a post by engineer and pilot Philip Greenspun about the role that increasing accuracy in avionics may have played in a recent mid-air collision in Brazil:

Airplanes under instrument flight rules fly from one navigation beacon to another along published standard routes. In the old days, with radio navigation receivers and pilots flying by hand, a plane wouldn’t fly its clearance exactly. The airways include a tolerance for error of +/- 4 miles. If you’re 4 miles to the right of course, in other words, you’re still legal and safe from hitting mountains or other obstacles. Altitude was similarly sloppy. If you reached for a drink of coffee or to look at a chart, you might drift up or down 200′. Air traffic control wouldn’t get upset.

How does it work now that the computer age has finally reached aviation? The GPS receiver computes an exact great circle route from navaid to navaid. All GPS receivers run from the same database of latitude/longitude coordinates, so they all have the same idea of where the Manchester, New Hampshire VOR is, for example. The autopilot in the plane will hold the airplane to within about 30′ of the centerline of the airway and to perhaps 20′ in altitude. If two planes in opposite directions are mistakenly cleared to fly on the same airway at the same altitude, a collision now becomes inevitable.

Almost any other system would be safer.

If correct— and apparently some other navigation systems deliberately introduce a measure of fuzziness in order to avoid problems like these— this is another good example of how terms like «accuracy» are interpreted and enacted by computers and people, and what happens when different interpretations (pardon the term) collide.

In both cases, the same terms— memory and accuracy— are applied to digital and human functionalities. This leads us to sometimes assume that they’re the same. But often they’re not, and not always in ways that give computers the upper hand.

What are other examples of terms that we’ve carried from the human to the digital world that lead to such misunderstandings?

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