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Imagining lost books in the age of Cambridge Analytica

Oxford University Press Blog: “Last spring, I—along with a substantial portion of my friends and acquaintances—followed some instructions I’d read online and successfully downloaded a copy of my Facebook data. Amongst other things, I was reminded of the fact that I had joined the social network on 21 February 2007 at 06:02 UTC and that my (semi-accurate, but handily alphabetized) list of commercially viable interests includes “Academic journal,” “Adaptation,” “Atlantic Ocean,” “Beast (Canadian band),” “Books,” “Cooperation,” “County Louth,” and “Current Events,” to name just a few. For the record, I’m really no more partial to Louth than County Tipperary, say, or Mayo, and I can’t confirm with absolute certainty that I’ve ever heard a song by Beast. At any rate, scrolling back through a written history of comments and conversations that I thought had long since disappeared, I experienced a disconcerting realization: by cross-referencing this Facebook data report with a trawl through my Gmail account, I could probably reconstruct with reasonable precision what I’d been up to on any given date in the previous decade. After all, when I became a Gmail user on 16 January 2006, I took Google’s claims that they’d “keep giving people more space forever” at face value and essentially stopped deleting my emails, both sent and received. This means I can now tell you, for example, that on the morning of 23 September 2008 I forgot my password for the online bookstore at Wilfrid Laurier University, where I would soon be instructing undergraduate classes on “Arthurian Traditions” and “Shakespeare and Company”; I imagine this came to my attention because I was trying to finalize the reading lists. Later that same day, I RSVP’d for my friend Jon’s upcoming birthday party—I think it was his 29th—and spent time in my Toronto apartment waiting for the delivery of a new Acer Aspire. I presume that I also ended up going to the “book history thingy from 5–7 and then drinks after” that I flagged to my boyfriend (now husband) in my online correspondence. In the age of big data and cloud storage, the old dog-ate-my-homework routine has become even less persuasive, and it can feel like nothing we’ve ever written, no matter how mundane, can be truly lost—not even those things that we might want to forget…”

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