DELETE: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

Helen Lock reviews Viktor Mayer-Schönberger's analysis of the internet's influence over storage of our data


Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, the author of Delete, is Oxford University's professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute, so he should be well placed to comment on growing concerns about data and privacy online. But, nowadays I think this is a topic that everyone has an opinion on. In Delete, he documents how the ability of humans to retain information has developed over time and how the presence of the internet now has eroded the possibility of some information (that which appears on the net) of ever truly disappearing. It is an interesting book which benefits from taking a multidisciplinary approach to analysing the digital age, borrowing from history, law, anthropology, science and psychology to give us a comprehensive view.

I read this book out of curiosity and it lead me to be curious about a whole plethora of internet issues and also to a greater understanding of the internet's power. I had been using the internet (and technology in general) fairly blindly for some time and decided that I ought to start being more aware and stop being so frivolous. As a history student I was well-practiced at analysing the impact new technologies had on past society but I had been paying little attention to what has been going around me, to developments occurring in my lifetime. This sounds odd now I've written it but I think when you grow up with new technologies rapidly being invented and you don't have a strong practical interest in how it all works, this often means simply learning to use technology but not stopping to reflect on its cultural effects. Delete can be recommended because of its ability to do this without scare-mongering or being didactic.

Arguably young people should be more astute and knowledgeable about the internet than those who did not grow up with it. But as a teenager I think I was a perfect example of how many in my generation have reacted to technology. For example as a precedent to how I used the internet, I was careless with all my belongings; in one year I might have got through four mobile phones, two wallets and at least five keys. I also happily uploaded hundreds of photos to Facebook and Myspace, shopped online, bought tickets online and opened online banking as a student. I once spent £60 on gig tickets from a fake website, which made me realise I needed to be more careful purchasing online and I finally changed my privacy settings on Facebook when someone I no longer wished to be in contact with started messaging me and appeared to know everything about me. Neither of these incidents were grave or had dramatic repercussions, but not every internet user has been so lucky with their lack of care.

Mayer-Schönberger pivots his book on examples of times when the permanency of information on the internet has dramatically effected people's lives. He starts by talking about the case of Stacy Synder. She had just completed her teacher training in America, but was denied her qualification because of a photo she had posted on her Myspace page of her drinking at a fancy dress party. She was told that it was 'unprofessional' and 'might expose pupils to a photo of a teacher drinking alcohol'. Stacy was 25 and a mother of two, so was old enough and responsible enough to be drinking at a private party and was certainly drinking legally, but the damage was done.

Mayer-Schönberger argues that this example illustrates 'the importance of forgetting' and that this should be noticed now considering that humans have being trying to improve their ability to record and remember information for millennia. He argues that forgetting is not just individual behaviour, but there such a thing as 'societal' forgetting and this 'gives people who have failed a second chance.' He is also concerned about the psychological impact of such perfect memory, arguing that people who have naturally photographic memories find it hard to make decisions. He is concerned that totally comprehensive external digital memory may have a similar effect. When people are more aware of their past it tangles with the present, making it harder to move on, be decisive or have abstract thoughts.

Nowadays we quite regularly hear of cases where people using social media like Facebook and Twitter have embarrassed or incriminated themselves, or generally impeded their life, the most serious or humorous of which often get in to the news. Delete analyses a common, unsympathetic reaction to these cases, which is: No one should complain of the consequences when they have voluntarily made information public. This argument has intuitive logic to it, people are voluntarily putting information online, they probably should be aware of what that means. But is that fair? Delete asks the question, should everyone who discloses information lose control of that information forever and have no say about whether or when the internet forgets this information? And will the inability to forget lead to an inability to forgive? As more cases of information being misinterpreted and used against people appear, will people start to self-censor and therefore the original freedom of conversation facilitated by the internet could start to become more constrained? All of which makes for a very interesting debate.

In future, as our awareness grows, perhaps a code of conduct will develop over private and public definitions online. Internet education has developed far slower than the rate of how people use the internet has developed so perhaps this will improve too. Mayer-Schönberger offers potential solutions to the dilemma at the back of the book, such as negotiating expiry dates and perfect contextualisation (so making sure the context of comments and events are remembered to avoid confusion) which provide food for thought. At times the book is quite arduous, but it has moments of genius, and the validity and immediacy of the debate keeps you reading. After all the more information is shared and stored forever the more we need to adapt to this situation with clarity and understanding.


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By Helen Lock on Mar 16, 2012

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