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Remembering me: big data, individual identity, and the psychological necessity of forgetting

Abstract

Each of us has a personal narrative: a story that defines us, and one that we tell about ourselves to our inner and outer worlds. A strong sense of identity is rooted in a personal narrative that has coherence and correspondence (Conway in J Mem Lang 53:594–628, 2005): coherence in the sense that the story we tell is consistent with and supportive of our current version of ‘self’; and correspondence in the sense that the story reflects the contents of autobiographical memory and the meaning of our experiences. These goals are achieved by a reciprocal interaction of autobiographical memory and the self, in which memories consistent with the self-image are reinforced, in turn strengthening the self-image they reflect. Thus, personal narratives depend crucially on the malleable nature of autobiographical memory: a strong sense of self requires that one remember what matters, and forget what does not. Today, anyone who is active online generates a highly detailed, ever—expanding, and permanent digital biographical ‘memory’—memory that identifies where we go, what we say, who we see, and what we do in increasing detail as our physical lives become more and more enmeshed with electronic devices capable of recording our communications, online activities, movements, and even bodily functions. This paper explores the consequences of this digital record for identity, arguing that it presents a challenge to our ability to construct our own personal narratives–narratives that are central to a sense of ‘self’. In the end, the ‘right to be forgotten’ may be, above all else, a psychological necessity that is core to identity—and therefore a value that we must ensure is protected.

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Correspondence to Jacquelyn Ann Burkell.

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Burkell, J.A. Remembering me: big data, individual identity, and the psychological necessity of forgetting. Ethics Inf Technol 18, 17–23 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-016-9393-1

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-016-9393-1

Keywords

  • Privacy
  • Identity
  • Right to be forgotten