Monday, 13 May 2019
Memory, Forgetting and the Internet
This was a review originally published on 28 July 2011:
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s Delete is an academic book (Princeton University Press) but it is simply written and methodically organised. It belongs to the emerging genre of books which reflect on the implications of digital technology / media for our lives.
The author (I will abbreviate him to V.M-S) is principally concerned with the fact that we can now store truly enormous quantities of information very cheaply, that we can retrieve it almost effortlessly using extraordinarily powerful technologies, and that we can potentially share it or access it globally. There is really no incentive to forget, lose or shred information; unless we do something about it, it can and will sit there forever.
V. M-S thinks we should do something about it. Historically, human lives can go on and societies remain viable because we can and do forget: literally, we forget because our minds can't remember everything and, metaphorically, we forget because information held in traditional ways degrades: even our cherished manuscripts succumb to "the gnawing criticism of the mice" (Marx). At both individual and social levels, forgetting is closely connected to forgiving - and moving on.
Forgetting used to be our "default" setting, says V. M-S, but that is changing: our default is now to remember - and to put ourselves in a position where others can remember for us, often with no more effort than typing a few words into Google. In a number of ways, we risk being unable to move on from, escape from our past.
V. M-S argues that we can and should reverse the trend but without giving up on the benefits which the digital revolution has brought us. In his chapter Five, he reviews half a dozen strategies for taming the negative consequences of our new World Memory, our digital Panopticon, among them - most obviously - the strengthening of privacy laws.
But in chapter Six, he advances his own favoured solution, beautifully simple but potentially enormously powerful. He argues that digital information should have an Expiry Date, after which it is deleted or - less drastically - shifted into long-term storage so that (for example) it no longer comes up on routine Google searches.
In some cases, individuals should specify an expiry date: for example, imagine having to tag the emails you have sent with a date at which they are automatically deleted.
In other cases, the Expiry date could be contractually agreed - when, for example, I agree to a seller's proposal that my personal data be held for not longer than six months after our business transaction.
Finally, the state might legislate in important cases.
Creating software to manage this would be easy and, in fact, has been done.
This simple strategy is intuitively appealing: one of people's worries about the Internet has been precisely that everything is there for ever and that there is little or nothing they can do about it. It also has in-built flexibility - different expiry dates can apply to different categories of information. And if I am convinced that my manuscripts should not be shredded, I could tag them to be kept alive "forever".
I would have welcomed more examples than V. M-S gives in what is a rather sparely written book. And I think that there is a much more overtly political story to be written than the one he has given us. Since he is now Oxford's Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation, that may be on some future agenda.