Forget About It: Making the Internet More Like Our Brains

The next wave of digital products won't just be about archiving the web; they'll be about destroying the archive.

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Niagara Falls / Artur Staszewski/Flickr

Snapchat is an iPhone app that, fascinatingly and maybe even usefully, lets you apply a time limit to the photos you share with friends. You can decide whether your recipient (or a group of recipients) sees a photo for 2 seconds, or 5, or 10 ... before what they see disappears entirely. Think Path, with a focus on photos. Think Instagram, with an expiration date.

Since Snapchat allows users to send pictures to each other with minimal slightly less fear of those pictures being seen by the wrong people, its most obvious use, Nick Bilton pointed out today, is -- yep -- sending suggestive photos. But the app's blink-and-you-miss-it UI speaks, even more broadly, to a market for something much broader than just sexting. Snapchat is a silly entry in a burgeoning genre: products that harness the power not of memory, but of forgetting.

Anti-archival tools provide a countervailing force to one of the defining features of the Internet: that, with its nearly infinite space, "save all" is its default setting. Without even trying, the Internet remembers. And that doesn't just mean that the comment you left on that Joss Whedon fan site that one time is still sitting there, emoticon-ed and gif-ed and captured for posterity within the all-knowing neurons of Google. It also means that the web, as a broad space, operates on both an assumption and an architecture of continuity. Within it, and all around it, archive is assumed. Even when we die ... there, still, we are

So when we talk about the Internet, we talk about feeds and flows and rivers and currents -- things determined by their dynamism and their lack of obvious containers.

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And: That's great! It's what makes the Internet the Internet! The only problem, however, is that constant flux-and-flow is not actually how we humans are programmed to move through the world. We live in fits and starts, in cycles and phases, and we divide our time not just socially, in shared minutes and hours, but physically. We wake. We sleep. We have beginnings. We have endings.

Which means that, to the extent that the web is a realization of Wells's World Brain, it suffers from a congenital defect. Its capacities and ours are misaligned. We little humans are defined by our (sometimes painfully) selective memories; the web is defined by its promiscuity. It doesn't sleep; it doesn't process; it never, never rests. And while we humans can control our experience of the web -- just because everything's archived doesn't mean that we're forced to consume it -- its own lavish memory changes the way we users think about remembering itself. We become cavalier about preservation, not just because Google serves as an outboard brain, but because we are conditioned to assume that the stuff we care about will automatically stick around.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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