Kategoriarkiv: In English

”Valuable speech” – a note on legal mechanism design

I am reading a series of essays on free expression on the Internet. One of the authors repeatedly uses the ideas ”low value speech” and ”valuable speech”. I feel great unease. I wonder why, but think that it is because such a dichotomy assumes that we can say that this piece of speech is valuable and this other piece lacks value. Am I more comfortable with thinking about this problem in terms of ”speech” vs ”criminal threats / defamation”? Oddly I think so. I would like my speech with as few qualifiers as possible, and then I would like to define that which should not be protected as something else. As criminal defamation or illegal threats, or something else.

I think the reason is fairly straightforward: it imposes an intellectual discipline on the legislator, and associates limiting speech with a threshold test. It is a question about design.

In general there seems to be at least three legislative design strategies here: one is to try to categorize and qualify the speech as such according to its inherent value, one is to concentrate on the medium in which it is expressed (Mill actually seems to have been leaning towards this strategy, favoring deliberative debate in the newspapers of his time over talk in the street) and one is to simply define everything as speech (and thus protected) that is not criminalized, making a point out of differentiating between what is speech and what is not. All three systems can rule that something should not be protected, but in different ways – and it seems to me that the method, the algorithm, the mechanism design here really matters.

Perhaps we spend to little time thinking about legal mechanism design.

Organizing politically for the value of new technologies

One of the fundamental problems in ICT-policy is actually an intra-governmental problem. While everyone agrees on the importance of new technologies, it seems equally obvious that our way of measuring the information economy, well, sucks. That means that any serious ICT-policy works needs to start out with an internal discussion in government about what this new technology actually is and how much it is worth. I would argue (and have argued in this column, for example), that we can observe a very destructive pattern in the development of ICT-policies everywhere, and that is this:

(i) Everyone agrees on the importance but not the value of information and communication technology.

In fact, many of the measures we have used vastly underrepresent the new technologies and what they mean, and there are few if any ways to represent the increase in possible innovation capability brought about by these technologies. So while all politicians will agree that ICTs are very important to the future of the municipality/nation/region, the follow-up question of how important, i.e. what the value we are discussing actually is. That leads to a secondary effect that is equally worrying:

(ii) We consistently overvalue the damage disruptive technologies do to incumbents and undervalue the new opportunities these technologies open up.

This is well-known in behavioural economics and simply a version of loss-aversion, but on a societal level. One effect of these two observations is a purely organizational observation:

(iii) ICT-policy work rarely results in a political and executive organization that accurately represents the value of the phaseshift in economics the new technologies enable.

This slows development, and leads to a number of baffling inefficiencies. It also leads to situations where a good and strong policy programme never gets executed on. In the column above I argued that the ICT-policy departement (in Sweden it is the Ministry of Enterprise and Industry) should be given a veto over proposals in government that will hurt developing the new technologies. That is a kind of thought experiment that is admittedly provocative, but the alternative, frankly, is that ICT-policies get dereailed by incumbent interests, budgetary concerns and other short-term more effectively organized interests in government.

Interestingly this is not only a governmental problem. It is also observable in industry. One of the largest photo-film makers knew that photography would become digital, but the way it ”knew” this organizationally was through a ”future commission” that was actually set up twice, and the results of which were dismissed as economically irresponsible and risky. Loss aversion in this case led to a massive loss of momentum as well as the near bankruptcy of the company. One of the people in Kodak was quoted to say:

Kodak’s executive staff were simply not prepared to take the necessary risks required in the form of a DRP, “the difference between [Kodak’s] traditional business and digital was so great. The tempo is different. The kind of skills you need are different. Kay [Whitmore, President] and Colby [Chandler] would tell you that they wanted change, but they didn’t want to force pain on the organisation.”

That is exactly what is happening in ICT-policy. And the signals are there, just as they were with Kodak, but the pain of reorganization are doubly difficult to implement in a political organization, where requiring that the electorate feel and share this pain is simply near-impossible. Until the executive/political commitment exists, that is. And yet, this is just a case of (iii) above. The organization does not respond to assertions of ”importance” it asserts to assertions of value, and that also allows rational trade-offs.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. One theory would be that state capitalists systems may be more resilient and adaptable, because they can make the changes quickly. On the other hand these economies may be even more vested in the old ways of measuring economic impact, and so completely fail to take account of the consumer surplus-values and enabling aspects of new technologies. We will see.

The information revolution will reward those that follow the advice of Clausewitz, the relentless military genius, who remarked acidly: ”Amateurs discuss strategy, professionals discuss organization”.

Solving problems? You should be collecting them.

Problems are beautiful, and they are among the most interesting things you can come across. You should consider each problem you are faced with as if it was a rare and thoughtful gift (failures are like this too, as Karl Jaspers noted: failures are small ciphers sent to you from God). Often we are annoyed when faced with problems and we see them as things to solve and then forget, but I think that it is much more important to collect them and understand what different kinds of problems there are. And the categories just continue to amaze me. When creating a taxonomy for problems, I  believe you reveal a lot about yourself as a person. The best interview question I have ever been faced with was the question ”How many different kinds of problems are there?” — The answer is almost certainly going to reveal a bunch about what is going on in your wetware. A couple of different possible answers help show this:

  1. Solveable and unsolveable. This is a pretty lame answer, admittedly, but it has a certain kind of basic charm. If this is how you think of your problems, you are either a math nerd or simply very, very pragmatic.
  2. Interesting and uninteresting. I like this much better. If we think about problems as interesting or uninteresting we at least acknowledge their inherent value. Problem is I think the second category is empty. So you may be wrong.
  3. Deductive, inductive or abductive. Old semiotic and peircean view of problems. This shows that you have an understanding of problems that flow from the structure of the problem, rather than the substance of them.
  4. Legal, economic, mathematical, et cetera. Subject matter problems. This shows that you think of problems as domain dependent. That something is a problem is decided in the larger language game of the domain where the discourse is playing out.
  5. Infinite or finite. Some problems are ever evolving and they are not essentially to be solved, they are more continuous games that need to be addressed all the time, and then evolve and change. Some problems have solutions that actually make them go away and disappear. This mirrors, of course, closely the categories infinite and finite games. Shows that you think about problems as games, or at least as ways of engaging the world: we live through our problems. They make us real.
  6. Mine and somebody elses. Old Douglas Adam’s joke. Somethings in his lovely novels are obscured by Somebody Else’s Problem-fields that make them, effectively, invisible. This shows that you think of problems as owned or things for which you should be accountable. Very responsible, but also somewhat limited.
  7. Natural and artificial. Some problems are made, others are found. The made problems are problems of human making, and often can be solved by fixing who does what. Found problems are much harder and also likely to remain constant over different teams. A made problem may very well be the consequence of a found problem, by the way. This way of thinking about problems is the natural scientist.
  8. Networked problems and stand-alone problems. Some problems occur because of the way a network of different factors interact. Some simply exist by their own. I find that those that make this distinction sometimes think that networked problems are intractable, whereas what can be handled on its own is solvable, or at least that networked problems require concerted action (collective action) to solve.
  9. Primary and secondary problems. Some problems are effects and some are causes. Solving for the problems that are not the root problems only fixes so much. Responses along these line realize the ever-present risk of post hoc ergo propter hoc in building models of reality.
  10. Out of context problems and context problems. This last category really interests me. OCPs was a term launched by sci-fi writer Iain M Banks, in his novel Excession. OCPs are problems that you hardly even recognize as problems because they are so way outside of the context you operate in. As opposed to context problems that are problems, you see as problems, recognize and have ways of solving. OCPs are NOT black swans as the wikipedia entry argues, however. They are something much more interesting, something that challenges your entire context and world-view and THUS a problem.

Wittgenstein famously noted that a philosophical problem has the form ”I don’t know my way”. I think re-phrasing problems in that way, finding representations for them, models and analogies is extremely interesting too. What are your favorite categories of problems? (I have not even mentioned things like Fermi-problems, np-complete et cetera, so there is much still to be done here. I have started a category on my blog for problems, and will keep an eye open for more of them as we proceed.

5 management books you probably did not think were management books

So, as a part of the skills I try to develop in my everyday work, I am a manager. I enjoy it tremendously, and am lucky enough to have a team that is simply amazing to work with. But that doesn’t mean that I get to be lazy about it. So I am trying to read management literature. Or I tried. Oh, man. That was a huge mistake. So — I think for the right audience, these books are probably amazing tools and simply wonderful reading, but for me they were more like having Bulgarian substitute coffee poured in my eyes whilst being beaten over the head with a rotten salmon. You get the idea. I quickly realized that I simply needed to read other books as if were they management books, and that worked just fine. The list I have compiled may be helpful for someone else, or not, I really don’t know. But here goes.

  1. Administrative Behaviour by Herbert Simon. This is probably the closest to a management book that I came. And this is a brilliant, brilliant tome. It contains much about management that is simply common sense, but tried, tested and in a language that only a Nobel laureate in economy that happened to invent cognitive science on the side, kill economic man and dabble in artificial intelligence could muster. Simply brilliant.
  2. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle. Know what happiness is? Have any idea of what motivates you? How should people behave to be virtuous and why do they do this? No idea? That could prove to be a problem in management. Because it turns out managing is about those people in your company (yes, them!) to a large degree. A robust model of man is a good thing to have, and Aristotle spent quite some time developing that work for you. As a plus you don’t get the contempt for everyone that saturates Plato’s writings (everyone not a philosopher, that is).
  3. Philosophical investigations by Wittgenstein. So, what does a manager do? One thing a manager does is handles concepts (and, yes, people, but we dealt with them already). Concepts are tricky things. So intensely tricky that they require a bit of analysis from time to time. You should be able to do that. There is no better guide to picking a part the grammar of a concept than Wittgenstein. And he is eminently readable too. As a bonus you get a lifetime worth of therapy from philosophical problems, and just may find your way out of the fly bottle.
  4. The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Baltazar Gracian. Nietzsche referred to Gracian as the greatest author of aphorisms ever. That should be reason enough, alone, to read him. But the mix of cynicism, pure wisdom, smiling misantrophy and daring truths is a boon for anyone who wants to be challenged, take advice or merely enjoy the voice of a long gone student of mankind that saw further and deeper than most. The blessing of an aphorism writer that you often disagree with is rare. And how dull to read a book full of aphorisms that makes you nod and say ”just so!”. <snickering>Oh, that would be management literature, that is right…</snickering>
  5. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. The manifold nature of reality, memory and of life is a good place to start your inquiries into anything. Borges is an amazing guide and an underestimated writer (even if you take that into account, recursively). For anyone in tech I would add the Cyberiad, by Stanislaw Lem. They serve the same purpose. They challenge assumptions and they build new theories of the world. Practicing that is no mean task, and you can find much worse company than Borges or Lem to do it with. But doing it, in any art form (you may prefer to listen to Scriabin or simply to enjoy paintings of, well, I wouldn’t know, I am sorely in need of more examples of artists that challenge assumptions in visual arts (I always default to Escher and Magritte)), is an important practice for anyone that wants to grow, I firmly believe.

So, I am not far gone on the path of management, but I am intent to travel further, learn more and develop, so please add your own recommendations in the comments, or simply email me — thanks for the help! And if I have unfairly missed any traditional super books on management, well, I can change my mind. Right? Who knows, you may have found something in being slapped with rotten salmon that I did not. If so — out with it!

Privacy I: Neuro-narratives and neo-privacy

The design of privacy enhancing technologies roughly seems to fall into two categories: negotiation support technologies that allow for social signaling or information restriction technologies that allow more control over specific pieces or flows of information. In both cases, the object of protection is arguably the information itself. But privacy is clearly about more than restricting access to information.

At least theoretically it seems possible to protect or enhance privacy by focusing not on the information, but the use to which it is put. I would argue that we can make a distinction between theoretical privacy frameworks that focus on information, and those that focus on narratives. I will admit that the distinction is somewhat unclear, but bear with me.

If the object of protection is not information about me, but my narrative about myself, we end up with a slightly different set of privacy problems, problems that are much more about data protection in a sense. And some scientific findings indeed seem to indicate that we are indeed hard-wired to understand ourselves and others through narratives. If this is the case, it seems privacy harms should be related to somehow disturbing or destroying those narratives. As stated in a recent blog post at NewScientist.com:

State-of-the-art neuro-imaging and cognitive neuropsychology both uphold the idea that we create our ”selves” through narrative. Based on a half-century’s research on ”split-brain” patients, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga argues that the human brain’s left hemisphere is specialised for intelligent behaviour and hypothesis formation. It also possesses the unique capacity to interpret – that is, narrate – behaviours and emotional states initiated by either hemisphere. Not surprisingly, the left hemisphere is also the language hemisphere, with specialised cortical regions for producing, interpreting and understanding speech. It is also the hemisphere that produces narratives.

Gazzaniga also thinks that this left-hemisphere ”interpreter” creates the unified feeling of an autobiographical, personal, unique self. ”The interpreter sustains a running narrative of our actions, emotions, thoughts, and dreams. The interpreter is the glue that keeps our story unified, and creates our sense of being a coherent, rational agent. To our bag of individual instincts it brings theories about our lives. These narratives of our past behaviour seep into our awareness and give us an autobiography,” he writes. The language areas of the left hemisphere are well placed to carry out these tasks. They draw on information in memory (amygdalo-hippocampal circuits, dorsolateral prefrontal cortices) and planning regions (orbitofrontal cortices). As neurologist Jeffrey Saver has shown, damage to these regions disrupts narration in a variety of ways, ranging from unbounded narration, in which a person generates narratives unconstrained by reality, to denarration, the inability to generate any narratives, external or internal.

Combining neurology and narratology seems to be a promising theoretical opening for privacy research.

Here is a possible way to think about privacy, then: privacy infringements are acts such that they significantly degrade my ability to create, disseminate and uphold my own narrative. That narrative then in turn decides autonomy, control, psychological and economic damage that I suffer. Narratology, the science studying narratives, argues that there is a difference between stories and discourse in general, the elements and the order in which they are retold (or told at all). This difference, in Russian formalism known as fabula and sujet, the personal data and the identifying narrative, perhaps, in privacy research, could be fruitfully studied much more in-depth. Maybe it is only relevant to discuss privacy in terms of the fabula, the order of retelling the raw elements of the sujet.

If I want to tell the story that I am a solid upstanding citizen, it will hurt my story if you reveal that I was in fact convicted for heinous crimes a couple of years ago. Your revelation is less problematic if I am trying to tell the story that I have served my time, but am still carrying the guilt of those crimes. We could argue that in one case there is a harm, in the other there is no harm. The narrative I am telling decides, then, the existence and extent of any privacy harm.

But, wait: the question then seems to be why I should have an unbounded right to my own narrative, right? Should I be the only one to decide what stories are told about me? That sounds dangerous and seems to threaten free expression.

The question about what constitutes a privacy harm in a narrative framework, then, needs to be a question about what stories we should be able to tell about ourselves and others. If, indeed, narratives are how we understand ourselves and others, then narratives need to play a much larger role in research about privacy and privacy enhancing technologies.

A corollary to this thought is that technologies that allow us to tell our stories are in fact privacy enhancing, since they reinforce our stories and narratives. Blogs, micro blogs and social networks are narrative tools.

Rather than seeing these tools as threats to privacy we may need to understand them as potentially very powerful privacy enhancing technologies. It all becomes a question of if the narrative prerogative is allocated in them in a way that is conducive to a balanced telling of your story, or the story that you identify with.

The American Fear of Small Towns

Ytterligare en migrerad post

I have just finished watching what I think is the first half or the first season of the series Happy Town. This series has hit the air waves and the iPads at the same time as Haven and the Gates, and what they all have in common is that they are set in small towns or communities. And none of these small towns or communities are what they seem, and yes, of course, all of these TV-series are but bleak shadows of the original small town psychosis know as Twin Peaks.

This is no coincidence. It is twenty years since Twin Peaks completely took the world by surprise with its small town characters, eerie forests and thin, thin veneer of normalcy. The new series do not reach to this level and in fact, the difference in dynamics is quite instructive. Now, with a spoiler alert, the differences between the three series are differences between different fears of small towns.

In Happy Town, we meet a town plagued by memories of series of disappearances, and a mysterious rumour of a Magic Man, that could whisk people away at no notice, leaving only a personal effect and dead flowers for the relatives left behind. This Magic Man was never caught and he has grown in the minds of the townsfolk to legend. He is a close relation of Bob in Twin Peaks, representing, more than anything, fear of the Other.

In Happy Town you do not know if you are standing in line behind the Magic Man, or if the Magic Man is you neighbor. You only know that something about the town is terribly wrong. And then it starts again, with new disappearances, new mysteries.

In the Gates, there is only one normal person, and we, as watchers, are made aware of this in the opening sequence. After that we are asked to slowly identify with the one outsider and normal person in a community of vampires, werewolves and witches. The series – jokingly referred to as despereate weirdwives – is not about fear of the Other, but fear of the Others, plural. It is the classical feeling of being an outsider, not being let in on the secret, or the joke. The fear here is tinged with fear of the supernatural, rather than the human.

In Haven, finally, we meet a town that does not know its own secrets, and that does not believe them – or at least seems not to. The series is only on its first couple of episodes. The past is buried and the present weird, but clearly supernatural. This is the weakest of the three series, for that reason. It cannot settle whether it wants to inspire fear of Others or fear of the Other. It is almost as if we are asked to fear the place, rather than anything else. In fact, the references in the early series are more to the indian burial grounds and this being an old place of note, than to anything else. Here we have a mismatch between the haunted house theme and the fear of the small town.


I think it is a valid observation that there is such a thing as an American Fear of Small Towns. Now, the US may not be unique here, but I believe this is predominantly a US fear (generalizing horribly, along the Weberian ideal types, of course). The unavoidable question then becomes why. I think the answer is interesting, and it ties in with some research I have been doing into concepts and philosophies of privacy.

The sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies discerned two different forms of social organization: Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft – or community and society. He noted that older towns were organized with tight-knit social networks, where everyone knew everything about everyone else. There was virtually no, or little, privacy in these villages and the model comes with specific qualities like a high cost for failure and persistent reputations. As urbanization starts these small-knit communities dissolved into societies, more anonymous and open, and less restrictive in some sense, but also less caring.

The fear of small towns is ultimately a fear of community – and of the powerful social dynamics of the community. What we see in Happy Town, Haven, The Gates and ultimately in Twin Peaks is a community warped into something completely different, scary and almost otherworldly. We fear that (I think we all do) because we realize the vulnerabilities that come from living in a community. Correspondingly this is a strong component in some of our desire for privacy — not to be at the mercy of a community that knows everything about me and where the social dynamics are susceptible to all kinds of influences (supernatural or not).


Historically, one could argue, this is a reversed version of the fear of strangers. It is the fear of friends. This, in a networked society, becomes an interesting turning point, and it connects us with the fear – or if that is to strong a word: the anxiety – we feel when we update our statuses, tweet and share our views in social media. Will we be accepted? What is actually happening in this recreated Tönniesian community where we find ourselves?

Ultimately, this may be the fear of tight-knit social networks.

The Art of the Post-Apocalyptic

En migrerad post från en liten engelsk blogg jag hade ett tag.

In the last few weeks I have directed some of my reading and thinking to the post-apocalyptic, for several reasons. I believe that the subject merits some analysis and I also think that it is a strong zeitgeist-element. In fact, our fascination with the post-apocalyptic is one of the strongest signs in the semiotics of our time, I think. We are not focused on the apocalypse as such, but at what comes after, the great big, grey swath of time that extends beyond the end. And our interest in the post-apocalyptic is becoming stronger and stronger. Just look at this Google Insights-graph over searches:

The rise of the post-apocalyptic

The perhaps most fascinating thing is the way this permeates modern art and culture in different ways (entertainment is the main category for the post-apocalyptic, the graph tells us, ironically — but the more interesting take away is that lots of the searches are categorized as ”lifestyle”…) Think of all the zombie movies set in a world after the End, or of the many novels that take place in a world that has collapsed. Not only fantastic art like The Road by Cormac Mccarthy, but also niche-literature like World War Z. Or think of Nine Inch Nails wonderful theme-album Year Zero. All works that hover near the apocalypse, but tend to push through, and end up in the post-apocalyptic.

Does a road actually lead anywhere after the apocalypse?

I think the genre as such presents an artist with a number of really hard challenges. How do you build narrative and meaning after having started your book with what is essentially the End? Well, McCarthy, of course, finds a way (by simply refusing to accept that as a given fact and asking the question rather than acting on the premise that post-apocalyptic narrative needs new formats). What I find truly disturbing and disappointing, though, is the number of writers who basically cheat by forming new civilizations. Justin Cronin’s The Passage was a great read, but not properly post-apocalyptic. The apocalypse was just that, a passage, not an End.


What is it, then, in our time that pushes the post-apocalyptic to the fore? We are the children of nuclear deterrence, and we never got our apocalypse – shouldn’t we be amazed and thoroughly sick of focusing on Ends? The environmental debate and climate challenges in some of its formats bring it back, but overall there seems to be more optimism about the future today than thirty years ago.

Of course, you could argue that it is optimistic to think that there will be a ”post-” when the apocalypse hits. But that is not it. And I do not think that this is all tanathos in disguise, either (I am not freudian enough to believe in that). I think the root of our fascination for the post-apocalyptic comes from a secret desire for simplicity and for values. Life in the post-apocalyptic world turns out to be about values. The Entzauberung is gone, and the world has been re-enchanted and opened up to values again. Humans are no longer reduced to resources, through technology’s Gestell. Our longing for the post-apocalyptic is a longing for the return of moral value.

Ultimately, the post-apocalyptic genre, then, is conservative.

Addendum 2010-09-26

It occured to me when reading through this post, that this is exactly what the last song on Nine Inch Nails’ post-apocalyptic Year Zero illustrates, it is a quiet fear of digital nihilism, the lyrics a master piece of ambivalence between nihilistic despair and religious belief:

Shame on us/Doomed from the start/May God have mercy/On our dirty little hearts/Shame on us/For all we’ve done/And all we ever were/Just zeros and ones

Metrics, Models and Methods – Wired for Innovation

But what is it?

Tech policy poses a number of different challenges. The perhaps most interesting one is that we do not agree on what the subject is and how to measure it. What is technology? How does it impact things like our economy? In Wired for Innovation Erik Brynjolfsson and Adam Saunders try to attack that issue in a number of different ways, essentially saying that our old measure of, for example, GDP, fail to capture the majority of the values created by technology brings to the table. The perhaps most powerful example in the book is E-bay. Brynjolfsson and Saunders note that research shows that Ebay creates 4 dollars of consumer surplus value (notoriously hard to measure) per transaction, totalling, back in 2003, 7 billion USD. The actual captured value in GDP for Ebay the same year? 1 billion USD. New services and products may well create something like 7 to 10 times the value that is captured in our old measures. This will necessarily lead us to make decisions that are at best suboptimal, and at worst really hurtful. When the likes of Nicholas Carr argue that technology does not matter, or, in fact, that it is crippling us, he does so from these old measures (and not only of economics, but also from an old conception of what culture and thinking is).

Getting the numbers right thus needs to be a priority. And getting them right means new models for value creation and capture.


In Wired for Innovation the authors note that there are now new methods being developed for capturing these new values. Measuring consumer surplus by looking at time is one. Currently, in our GDP-model, the value of Internet Access is equal to the fees that consumers pay for internet access, they note, and nothing more. That is roughly 100 dollars a year and consumer, which then becomes the value economists will say that the Internet has to that consumer, too. Added up that makes 0.2 percent of GDP. That is the value our models have of the Internet.

The average time people spend on the Internet of their leisure time is 10 percent. That means that we spend 10 percent of our (free) time on something that is worth 0.2 percent of GDP. Not necessarily insane, right, but still thought provoking. Measuring time gives another estimate of worth however, and with this method the average value of internet access to a consumer is 3000 USD a year. 30 times the GDP-estimate. Now, all of these methods are in their infancy, but they are usable, and should be – as the authors argue – developed in much greater detail.


It is well worth while to follow the work in MIT on this issue, here.

The Cruelty of Mnemosyne?

Was Mnemosyne a cruel goddess?

Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet today has an interesting piece on what the Internet does to forgetting. The barebones version is simple: a man murders his then-girl friend, is sentenced to psychiatric care, gets better in a year and is released.

The murder is high-profile: all the tabloids at the time featured the man pleading for anyone to come forward if they knew anything about his girlfriend’s disappearance. All the while her body lay hidden in a well out at his parents place in the country. His mother commits suicide a day after the murder, but the story does not detail if it is because she cannot live with the knowledge that her son has murdered the mother of his children. After four days of interrogation he confesses and is sentenced to psychiatric care.

He then slowly, painstakingly, reconstructs his life, gets a new family and a new job as a successful manager in a municipality. He reveals nothing about his past, not even to his new children. His new wife knows the story, but agrees that the kids do not need to know. Then, by chance or by design, someone finds out. They start flooding his now-employer, the county, with e-mails and letters detailing the story. His new employer is shocked, removes him from his position and then the story re-surfaces in all the tabloids.

The man now has lost his job, and, the article notes, what is worse: he has to tell his kids.

This story seems to give us the perfect example of why there has to be a right to be forgotten in the information society (as discussed in Viktor Mayer-Schönbergers works and in France), and how that right to be forgotten can be seen as an important aspect of any set of privacy protections. I don’t think there is any easy answer here, and I will not attempt to provide one. But let us analyze the example more in-depth.


First, let us acknowledge the moral nature of the claim that there should be a right to be forgotten. The whole story in Aftonbladet pivots around this very aspect of the case, with the man arguing that there should be a right to start anew, and the anonymous users of the forum detailing the man’s history and charting his present life arguing that someone’s deeds should always follow them. The idea that there should be a right to be forgotten is at the most basic level an ethical claim. It is possible to imagine someone arguing that we should be judged on the sum of our actions, and that others should be free to judge us on the sum of our actions too — and that allowing someone to obscure his or her history would be unethical.

This raises more questions.

To me, one of the crucial questions is whether forgetting is really a moral act? We seem to be conflating two different things here. I would recognize, gladly, that forgiving is a moral act, but I sincerely hesitate to call forgetting a moral act. Forgetting to me seems to be less of an act and more of a passive process, like a flower wilting or the sea grinding stones to sand. True, there are cases where not forgetting is a moral act (as in ”nie wieder”), remembering can be a moral act, but forgetting to me seems to be something else. Are we really looking for something else, then? A right to be forgiven?

Another question that is tricky is what this says about the relationship between privacy and social norms.

I find that I often think that the level of privacy in a society is absolutely dependent on social norms in that society, and that this leads to a number of difficult challenges – not least the question about what communities can actually carry and enforce norms, and if the wider networked communities on the internet are too low density to actually produce norms that carry the enforcement needed to guarantee privacy levels that we have grown to expect in offline environments. But there is an alternative way to think about privacy, best expressed in Eric Posner’s work on law and social norms. Posner argues that the reason a state provides privacy protections at all is because of the pathologies of social norm enforcement. That is: social norms can sometimes be so harsh and destructive that they sub-optimize overall welfare and destroy important values – like the ability for a murderer to be rehabilitated.

In that scenario, privacy is not produced by norms, privacy is what we are guaranteed by the state in spite of the norms that would have us exposed to others in a way that is ethically, or, for that matter, economically, indefensible.


Second, the debate around the right to be forgotten also seems to high-light the relationship between privacy, identity and time. It has long been well-known that identity and time have an interesting relationship. Locke and Hume examined the idea of personal continuity and this idea is essential to understand the case at hand. What is questioned here is whether a man can really, truly change, or if he is the same now as he was long ago. The idea that there should be a right to be forgotten is related to the idea that man changes over time and that it makes little sense to hold someone accountable now for what happened 25 years ago. In one way this would be as irrational as holding one man responsible for what another man does today, you could argue, and there would be some truth to this. In fact, you could argue that there is very little in terms of identity at all, and that through the course a lifetime you are – perhaps both simultaneously and sequentially – several different persons (think about how the law tries to grapple with multiple personality disorders). In order to fully understand the relationship of forgetting, time, privacy and identity we would need to dig deeper into this question (and I intend to), but suffice it to say that if we believe in some version of the psychological approach to identity we could be open to an argument about ”a right to be forgotten” that is really not about forgetting, but about changing as a person. It would be a right to define cut-off points for personal continuity, rather than anything else.

Without her no identity?

Now, paraphrasing John Maynard Keynes, we can also note that in the long run we all have privacy. As we die and time goes on, most of us will not have a right to be forgotten, but will simply be forgotten. This seems to be to be qualitatively different from a right to be forgotten, and if anything also raises questions about the coherency of the meme.

The time aspect of privacy has been discussed far too little. There are several things here that need to be examined in-depth, not least the issue of how privacy plays out in time, but this will have to wait for another day. With Wittgenstein we could ask if privacy has Echte Dauer – real duration – like pain, or if it is more like a pattern discerned over time, like sorrow. Indeed, we may ask with Aristotle if privacy is something we can only say if someone has had after studying their entire life – Aristotle’s example was the happy life, but perhaps we can say the same about the private life, or, the probably different life lead in privacy.


The third point I would like to make is a point relating to the relationship of forgetting to law. Law has a number of different mechanisms for forgetting. The idea of a statute of limitation is one such aspect. For some crimes there is no such statute, for others the statute can be as little as three years. I sometimes wonder if this is a figure of thought that lies underneath the discussions around the right to be forgotten, and if so if it is really appropriate. The criticism I have in mind is this: what a statute of limitation does is not that it forgets, nor that it forgives, but only that it allows law enforcement to efficiently allocate its resources. This may only be partly true, but it seems to me to be one significant difference between a right to be forgotten and the statute of limitations.


To conclude, though, I would like to point out something entirely different. I think that the debate surrounding the issue of whether or not there should be a right to be forgotten is truly fascinating and worthwhile. I also think that it has very little to do with technology. The story I have told could as easily have been from Jane Austen. The stranger with a dark past, that if revealed will destroy his social standing and chances for advancement is old, and a persistent feature of art and literature. When we raise it in the context of information technology we make the argument that things have changed at some basic level. That the cost, perhaps, of revealing the past of anyone has been reduced to near-zero. I am not sure that is true. It is admittedly a pet peeve of mine, but what if the wealth of information also obscures the past? What if the noise in the machine will actually allow someone to renew their life more efficiently in the future?

We do not know yet.

Do we envy Dante in the river Lethe?

What the story in Aftonbladet does not tell us was how it all started: did somebody find something on the net that allowed them to make the connections that led to the man being revealed as a murderer? Or did someone who knew about the story simply use the net as a way to disseminate it? Does it matter?

Ultimately the right to be forgotten is not a debate about design and technology, but about the freedom of individuals to remember and then use their knowledge to harm others.