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Time and Emotion

This coming Monday, as has become tradition, a significant fraction of the Twitter user base will send out Star-Wars-themed tweets tagged #maythe4th or #maythefourthbewithyou, because saying the day in that way makes for a handy bit of wordplay.  There will be cosplay pictures, Yoda-esque inversions of sentence structure, and probably (this year) a fair bit of squeeing about the upcoming sequel and its brilliantly fan-service trailer.

Also this coming Monday, as has become tradition for me, I will send out a tweet containing the opening lines of “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, tagged #maythe4th, because it was on May 4th, 1970 that National Guardsmen fired a volley into a crowd of Kent State college students, wounding nine and killing four.

Anniversaries are potent psychological markers.  We reflect on historical events, both global and personal, that have particular meaning to us.  We celebrate the days of our birth, of first meeting our loved ones, of all manner of wonderful life-changing moments.  We mourn the days of our losses, of our betrayals, of all manner of terrible life-changing moments.  In every heart, a secret calendar.

There are only so many days in the year; pile enough things together on a calendar, and some of them will coincide.  Some of those alignments will coalesce into rays of remembered joy, warming us from the past.  Others will form spears of relived pain, lodging afresh in our hearts.  A few may do both, comforting and piercing all at once.

The longer we spend online, the more traces of those secret calendars will take public shape.  The dates of my first marriage and divorce are not, to the best of my recollection, recorded anywhere online, but the date of my second (and current) marriage is there, thanks to some early blog posts.  The date of my first professional award is there.  The dates of our children’s placements and adoptions are there.  The dates of my daughter’s illness and death are there.

The more we build online networks, not physical networks but social and emotional networks, the more pieces we leave lying around for algorithms to gather together and present to us with no real thought for what those pieces actually mean, or for how they should or shouldn’t fit together.  A human can glance through a pile of photos and tell which are emotionally or even narratively out of place.  Code cannot.  A human can quickly determine which scraps of text and pixels were happy at the moment of their creation, only to be transformed into talismans of sorrow by later events.  Code cannot.

We’re collectively creating strata of data, adorned with easy bits of metadata like time and date and sometimes place, but lacking all the truly important metadata like feeling and meaning.  As we share with each other, we share with the future.  We share with the companies that help us share with each other, because it’s easy to store it all.  Content in the old network was ephemeral, and in the older networks was tangible but private.  In the new networks, everything we create is easy to retrieve—if not for us, as users of the network, then at least for the code that runs on the same machines which accept all that we share.

And so, more and more with every passing day, code is written to reach back into everything we’ve created, assembling it along easily-identified axes like Likes or Faves or geographic coordinates or the day of the year, in order to show it to us again.  Sometimes it’s code we invite into our lives, but not always.  Sometimes we find the code that drives the networks we use resurrecting our past without warning.

This will not always be welcome.

There are things we can do to make our remorselessly remembering routines more humane, and most of those things are rooted in experience design.  We can design compassionate consent requests ahead of introducing new functionality, and easy ways to mark which dates and memories and bits of data should be avoided, and even design thoughtful expressions of remorse and apology.  We can and should add this very human layer of thoughtfulness to cushion us from literally unthinking code that yields results which may harm as easily as they may heal.

It won’t be easy, and we’ll make mistakes no matter how hard we try.  Our very attempts to be thoughtful may backfire and make things worse, but we’ll learn from those mistakes and do better the next time.

Nothing could be more human than that.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 May 2015.

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