The “right” to be forgotten & the urge to remember

In just four days more than 40,000 Europeans took advantage of their newly granted “right to be forgotten” online by asking Google to eliminate search results showing their names. The recent ruling by the European Union Court of Justice applies to social networking services and Google competitors too, but it’s the world’s dominant search engine that seems to be facing the biggest burden in terms of meeting requests to have personal information scrubbed. There are more than 500 million people in the area covered by the EU ruling, and Google is on a hiring spree to handle the anticipated rush—not only adding frontline programmers but also creating an advisory board that includes a philosopher of information ethics from Oxford and a U.N. free-speech specialist to, as one report put it, help “navigate through the ethical shoals.”

No question the ethical issues are significant, and if this ruling helps lead to clearer policies and fair, enforceable laws balancing the right to privacy with the right to know, so much the better. But what also makes the story interesting is what appears to be the pent-up demand to be forgotten online—even as so many hundreds of millions of other people online still try so hard to be noticed. Forty-thousand in four days may not signal a tipping point, but Google’s response suggests it doesn’t necessarily anticipate waning volume for such requests either.

There’s the desire to be forgotten, and the desire to be noticed, but there’s also the compelling and evident desire to remember, mourn, and memorialize online.

The Facebook page of a friend who died four years ago is still up and “active,” in that friends and family continue to post remembrances. Another friend, an otherwise active poster on Facebook who suddenly lost a family member this spring, has been quiet since uploading a photo of that family member as her profile picture. You’ve probably encountered similar instances yourself, or participated directly, and if so you’re far from alone. Facebook and other services have for a while now provided options for maintaining (or deactivating) pages and accounts set up by users who’ve died, as well as guidelines for setting up memorial pages. Meanwhile, cemeteries are increasingly supplementing physical (analog?) customs and traditions with digital and interactive options, from headstones emblazoned with scannable codes that let visitors call up information on their mobile devices about the deceased, to geospatial technology allowing online “visits” and searches for specific graves or “points of interest.” 

Commonweal subscriber Eileen Markey raised this point in commenting on Paul Moses’s recent dotCommonweal post about Amazon: “I think there are actually some serious Catholic, Incarnational questions to ponder in our march to ever more digital lives” (and Jim Pauwels seconded). What might some of those be? Eamon Duffy, in a piece in the current issue of the New York Review of Books on the history saints and saint-making (titled, as it happens, “The Intense Afterlife of the Saints”), writes that “the central Christian doctrine of Incarnation might be argued to entail of necessity the celebration of the material and not just the spiritual world, including the bodies of the saints.” Also, he explains,

[t]he saint was believed to be present in his relics, as Christ was present in the Eucharist. To journey to a shrine, to touch the holy bones or the tomb in which they rested, to anoint withered limbs with oil from the lamps that burned before them, to drink water in which dust from the shrine had been dissolved—all this brought the devotee physically and concretely within the scope of the saint’s power and patronage. “Brandea,” pieces of cloth that had touched a saint’s bones, were believed to become heavier from the contact.

Now, even if we’re not necessarily talking saints, and if online photos, “likes,” and status updates left behind by the deceased don’t have weight in the same physical sense as letters or snapshots, could their loved ones nonetheless find it comforting to think of these things as “heavier” from—if only via mouse-click or keystroke—the contact?

In high school I had a teacher who illustrated the meaning of the word “mores” by telling us about a wake she’d attended as a guest of a friend in Ireland, where the family not only put the body of the deceased on view in the parlor but in the course of the next couple of days took turns dancing around the room with it. “It was somebody’s father or uncle,” my teacher said. “But he was really heavy.” She said she would never forget it. I only heard about it—for me, it was a virtual experience—but I haven’t forgotten it either, the image coming to mind whenever I see or hear the word “mores.”

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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