Just for the record, this project is not about protecting ones private life or whatever. The aim is not to draw attention to all kinds of violations of privacy by the government or internet companies, rather, it is simply to remove myself and all my artistic activities from the digital domain. Not that my art work amounts to a great deal, but I have no idea how this information may be used in the future. It’s not something that worries me hugely, but it does make me feel somewhat uncomfortable, so it seems best to simply delete everything.
Accounts and subscriptions can easily be cancelled. I have always been quite sceptical about the real social added value of social media services and I never succumbed to it, so they doesn’t pose a problem either. But the complete removal from the internet of every reference to me has proven to be a lot more difficult than I initially envisaged.
At the end of the 1980s I had all kinds of naive ideas about the fantastic possibilities of the internet and became enthusiastically involved in the introduction of the world wide web in the Netherlands, so my name is tied up with a number of those early experiments, and there is likely to be information about them floating about. But, so far, I have not been able to find it.
Another problem is that there are a number of projects that I cannot claim as exclusively my own work – projects produced together with other artists, volunteers, businesses and organisations. Of those, the websites I have built myself I can easily take offline, but information about those projects is also on websites belonging to other people and organisations, and of course I cannot force them to delete that information.
A couple of the big projects received extensive news coverage and this poses an extra complication. Although at the time, many newspapers and magazines were not completely digital, thus not accessible by the search engines. In the archives of national and international news organisations, countless articles, reports, interviews, photographs and radio and TV broadcasts about these high-profile projects still exist.
So it is impossible to delete all the information. However, I can ask people to no longer mention my name in connection with those projects. Not because I am ashamed of being linked to them and want to distance myself – I am quite happy to make myself accountable for everything I got up to in the past – it’s just that I don’t know what will happen with that digitized information in the future, and I’m not sure that I want to take responsibility for that.
With analogue archives of course, it isn’t possible to alter the content of articles or news reports, but if I am insistent, people are often willing to delete the mention of my name in their digital index so that I can no longer be linked to the information about those projects.
Unfortunately however, large organisations and official bodies are less likely to respond to such an unusual request. That being the case, I will have to go down the judicial route if I want to obtain control over my own presence in the digital domain. Probably extremely interesting material for lawyers, but, as there is hardly any legislation on such matters, also very difficult.
And then there are the search engines themselves. There is already some jurisprudence concerning the deletion of search results – in Europe the right to be forgotten has existed since 2014. However, this European directive is largely concerned with damage an individual may accrue as a result of any incorrect or defamatory messages that have ever appeared on the internet. In my case though, it’s not about damage, but about the principle that I simply do not want to be found at all. In other words I am choosing not to be part of the capital asset with which companies such as Google earn their money, both now and in the future.
A lot of people will probably say that those search engines are simply part and parcel of the digital reality in which we now live. That reality does indeed determine the space I have to manoeuvre in, and if I disagree with the way companies collect and monetize my data without my consent, then I can speak out. I can write an indictment, create an angry political artwork, organise some ingenious online resistance, or hold companies accountable through the law. This last is exceedingly difficult, but as long as I am alive, then all these things still belong to the realm of possibilities.
But what about when I am no longer here? I will continue to exist – no longer in any physical sense, but as data in the digital sphere. Data which after my demise will undoubtedly continue be used by businesses for such banalities as the sale of advertising. My fear though, is that it won’t be long before that data is also used for other things.
After all, data serves as fuel for all the new technologies focussed on enabling us to function better, faster, healthier and smarter – in short, increasingly more efficiently. Technology has of course always served that purpose, but with this data-driven technology we are entering completely new territory. Artificial intelligence and biotechnology are already enabling us to push back the boundaries dictated by evolution, so who is to say what will be possible in say ten, fifty or a hundred years? What as yet unimaginable things will be moulded from that colossal clod of data.
It’s a nice theme for futurologists and science fiction writers, however, I personally question if I want to make my data freely available for use in those physical and mental improvements for which there is no precedent. Do I want to be an accomplice in a process that seeks to radically eliminate all our shortcomings and extinguish all our flaws?
The answer is no – for I hold our inadequacies, our inability to function efficiently, very dear. After all, that determined, unremitting bungling in dealing with of ourselves and our environment is precisely what makes us human. And so, in solidarity with all previous generations – who recorded their bumbling through stories, poems, dance, music, books, sculptures and paintings, but whose experiences will soon be discarded as irrelevant, and whose memories will all eventually be lost to time – I too choose for oblivion.
In that sense, this project can also be seen as a somewhat roundabout tribute to all those who remain behind. An ode to we who were and will never be again…
Also read: Consequences