I'm convinced a human doesn't control how his or her memory works, although it may be possible to boost its efficiency. I've often joked — probably even in this column — that information is filed differently for everyone, and my own "filing clerk" is lamentably lazy
My brother Ken never forgets anything. I process data fairly quickly, then throw a lot of what I've learned away. Or maybe that lazy clerk stores it in a rafter and I haven't figured out where. I used to ask Ken to recall little details of my life that didn't get filed, but when I moved away to college he was no longer handy to serve as the keeper of my memories, to my dismay.
Fear not. Facebook, Google and probably other online services appear qualified to be my unofficial biographer — and yours, too, if you actively use them.
I knew they archived data harvested from accounts using processes developed with the notion of selling ads and targeting services. OK. I live a pretty straightforward life and actually prefer ads that interest me. Gardening ads beat wrestling ads, and I'd much prefer to be pitched pet supplies for the fur kids than kayaks or rifles.
But I'm bugged by revelations of how thoroughly millions of Americans, me included, lost control of our personal data. Monday, after reading a New York Times piece by Brian X. Chen about how to see the archived files Facebook and Google keep, I decided to take a peek.
The Facebook accumulation was so large and frankly discouraging I haven't peered into the Google version yet. I wasn't expecting the sheer volume of the Facebook archive amassed since I joined in July 2008.
Chen's headline on the files contained the word "Yikes!" Understatement.
I found myself thumbing through every photo, aggregated in one place, including those I couldn't care less about and a bunch I don't recognize. Facebook lumps a massive accumulation of material together under headings like video, photos, friends, etc.
My archive contains phones or emails for people I know — including folks who are not actually Facebook friends, but we interacted at least once in the real world. What's up with that?
I skittered from file to file, opening disconcertingly complete transcripts of every message exchange, no matter how banal or brief. It's weird to know this story of me was saved not because I wanted it, but because there was some hope that bits of it could be monetized. One section is even headed, "The advertisers who uploaded a contact list with your information." It's a long, long, very long list that includes some who noted data breaches in the not-so-far past.
It's nice to know that long after I've forgotten everything about the details of 2008 or 2018, there's a convoluted record of trivia and treasures, alongside some gibberish. I am grateful I can elect to end collection of some of the data, though not necessarily the pieces I object to.
My archive supports the notion what happens online doesn't go away. This is the ultimate cache. It's not a story we tell our kids to encourage good behavior.
Mostly, it's a good reminder that we should pay attention — and contemplate whether online social media, search engines and other things we use without deep thought "for free" really come without cost. What are we willing to pay or give up in the way of privacy?
I had no idea the data mining was so extensive. But I wasn't paying attention or wondering about it. That's on me. I ceded control to strangers — strangers who are nearly impossible to reach if there's a problem.
My brother's excellent recall didn't keep track of my details this thoroughly. But I never wondered if I could trust him. Or if he had my interests at heart.