Forgetting the Internet

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San Francisco (AFP), June 26  - Google on Thursday said that it is "forgetting" things in Europe to comply with a legal ruling granting people the power to have certain information about them removed from searches.

Even though it was sunny, I knew something was wrong the moment I woke up the day of The Ruling. I didn't check the news, I didn't read the paper, I just felt something in the air—an electric current of negativity buzzing in my back pocket where I keep my phone. All morning it shook. It vibrated until it died.

I remember it was sunny curtains in the window, the sliver of sky that could be seen between my backyard and the side of a warehouse behind my building. A glass of water sat by the bed, air bubbles popping on its surface after a night's rest. It was nicer then than it is now—muggy with clockwork downpours around 16h00. My back pocket still droops from the invisible weight of my old phone, and the ghost vibrating sensation still persists, like a lost limb, or broken nerves. I haven't replaced my old appendage. I know that even if I could, no one would be calling, no texts incoming, no whatsapps, no tweets. That life was over—"forgotten" as the press said on that sunny morning so long ago.

When The Ruling came down, I never thought I'd disappear. I guess no one really understood the full repercussions of filing for forgetting. People—as is often the case—were quick to celebrate the courts' reinforcement of civilians' right to affect their linkrank. The EU High Court had ruled that citizens can have the option to be forgotten. We now could tell the service providers and search engines that their information was invalid—just fill out a form, click submit, and within the teraflop your link would be removed (after admin approval of course). What seems like a win at the time became another form of control, one that quickened the pace for The Stack to obliterate your relevance. Although some saw it coming, most of us were too content with the novelty of thinking we could take back some of our humanity. I suppose, in some ways, we got what we wished for.

The first thing I noticed was that my girlfriend stopped calling. I used to love talking to her on the phone, or skyping all night, hearing her air and static. She was my signal in the noise of this world. She would sweetly, yet awkwardly, pronounce screenspeech as if it were the pet names we used for one another—ELLE-OH-HELL, TEE-TEE-WAI-YELL, BEE-ARBY BEEBEE. She would send me gifs when I went on work trips: cats with bad dreams consoled by their mothers, saving them from the harm of their little kitty unconscious. Or some kind of fail video. We had that kind of bland but warm sense of humor, a blanket of memes that we shared. An afghan of image macros. I never put her number in my phone, because I preferred memorizing it. Funny, now I don't even remember if she had a +49 number.

After my girlfriend stopped calling, I noticed that I couldn't find my passwords, and soon my credit started to freeze. It was as if the cloud evaporated right off of my servers. It wasn't so sudden, though. In fact the whole process would sound quite boring. Some might call what happened to me a slow death, but I came to call it the Long Lapse. Hope—that funny, stupid thing that makes men want to live past death—had cemented itself in my head. Though I refused to accept being forgotten, I knew that it'd be a long while until I would be remembered. Thus, the Long Lapse—though now that I say it, I realize I don't think I've once uttered those words out loud.

This is to say that I don't socialize. There's a pirate cinema in Rudow that still accepts cash that I go to once in a while. A while back I'd go with my friend Christof, another forgotten. We'd go see the Iron Man movie marathons and laugh loudly at the moments of American Exceptionalism—sometimes because it was generally funny, other times because of how naive it seemed to us now. It was a good way of forgetting ourselves, the forgotten: as if the screen was a psychic hyperlink between our sunken eyes and everyday remembered citizens. The power of cinema, as they say.

But then Christof moved, to the Emirates or some such place, finding a way to build off of the spoof he'd been living under so that he could fake his way into the remembered world. I think he wanted to be a banker. Some anonymous employment in the market world that made it both easy to hide and difficult to punish. He had the right idea. No one would look too closely at his spoof. As long as he never directly dipped into the market, no one would deliberately try to look at the dead ends of his personal cache. I, ironically, was too public to ever make it back to the remembered world. It's not that people knew me, but rather I was such an early adopter of The Ruling. Or at least that's what I tell myself these days. Now that I think of it, I think Christof moved to Central America. Starting some spoof mine or something like that.

Since he left, the movies are even more sparsely attended. I suppose the remembered are enjoying their entertainment in the so-called privacy of their own homes. I guess I still have my books, the little collection of poems that my brother sent me before The Ruling. Reading for pleasure—the worst kind of social stigma. It used to be that the forgotten would go with other walking detritus to the state-run book banks down in the cultural corridor. Even if I could squeeze out credit for the subscription to the new libraries, I wouldn't be able to unlock the DRM past the first couple of chapters. Most literature that finds its way into my hands comes from fellow spoofers; a gift economy for exercising the imagination.

Most of the time, when not performing my spoof-self at work, I only frequent places that accept the forgotten currency. The little credit that I make I keep for rent and my spoof subscription. I think the rates are going to go up soon, both for my lease and on my crypto. Cash can still get you a weiß or a Jever from the cafe, but usually you have to leave some collateral for the recycle taxes. Some personal intel, or a nonfabricated keepsake from before The Ruling. Unfortunately they discontinued returning bottles to their crates in exchange for credit a while back, otherwise I would've just drank myself into remembrance. Lounging all day on the blistering Tempelhof asphalt isn't standard fare, even for those of us that have fully accepted being forgotten. Even if one could get on the U6 or take the S-Bahn down to Hermannstraße, the facial recognition checkpoints around the perimeter of that vast blacktop oasis wouldn't let you get through the turnstiles.

I thought of trying to follow in Cristof's footsteps, forsaking my misplaced pride for the benefit of entering back into the remembered world. Had I not opted for forgetting, I could see myself returning from this exile with savings going toward a beach house in Delaware, or putting children in daycare. My mother always wanted me to have children, as mothers do. Sometimes I think she would be happy for me now, since I think in some ways, she never got the chance to be forgotten, living on in her search results and avatars. Sometimes I used my spoof to log in to her accounts (since most of her passwords were a combination of her children's birthdays) and see people she went to high school with still sending her pokes or endorsements.

It would make the hard drive of my heart spin with furious speed to see her like that, as a simulation of networked activity based on old purchases and long gone favorites. But her rendering also soothed me, calming me the same way she did when I couldn't sleep because of my Concerta prescription. Sometimes I'd watch her timeline interact with others like it was on-demand TV, binging on her telepresence. That indulgence would hardly compare to when she used to “like” my life prior to her passing. I had to make do with this mimic-mom.

To that end, it's hard to know what isn't an imitation of the objects and sensations I knew before The Ruling. But fuck it, I made my choice. I chose what they said would be freedom, protecting the privacy I so closely coveted and cherished. I got what I wanted. I tried to stave off the threats to my digital reputation long enough; I defended my relevance at all cost. But said cost turned into debt, and those debts are all that has been remembered. It's not that I lost myself, but rather, I lost my representation. I wouldn't let them shape me into a body of data and traffic. I thought I had more to offer. Now, in retrospect, I see the glaring disparity between what I thought was relevant and what they did. Once, I suppose, the tension of that disparity is what made me an individual. But what was once taut has now gone slack. 

Short fiction and artwork by Nicholas O'Brien.