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Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age Paperback – Jul 25 2011
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Winner of the 2010 Marshall McLuhan Award for Outstanding Book in Media ecology, Media Ecology Association
Winner of the 2010 Don K. Price Award, Science, Technology, and Environmental Politics Section of the American Political Science Association
"Mayer-Schonberger deserves to be applauded and Delete deserves to be read for making us aware of the timelessness of what we created and for getting us to consider what endless accumulation might portend."--Paul Duguid, Times Literary Supplement
"In Delete, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger argues that we should be less troubled by the fleetingness of our digital records than by the way they can linger."--Adam Keiper, Wall Street Journal
"Mayer-Schönberger raises questions about the power of technology and how it affects our interpretation of time. . . . He draws on a rich body of contemporary psychological theory to argue that both individuals and societies are obliged to rewrite or eliminate elements of the past that would render action in the present impossible."--Fred Turner, Nature
"There is no better source for fostering an informed debate on this issue."--Science
"A fascinating book."--Clive Thompson, WIRED Magazine
"As its title suggests, Delete is about forgetting, more specifically about the demise of forgetting and the resulting perils. . . . [Mayer-Schonberger] comes up with an interesting solution: expiration dates in electronic files. This would stop the files from existing forever and flooding us and the next generations with gigantic piles of mostly useless or even potentially harmful details. This proposal should not be forgotten as we navigate between the urge to record and immortalise our lives and the need to stay productive and sane."--Yadin Dudai, New Scientist
"Delete is a useful recap of the various methods that are--or could be--applied to dealing with the consequences of information abundance. It also adds a thought-provoking new twist to the literature."--Richard Waters, Financial Times
"Unlike so many books about the internet, which like to hit the panic button then run, Mayer-Schönberger stays around to offer a solution. . . . Mayer-Schönberger deserves to be applauded and Delete deserves to be read for making us aware of the timelessness of what we create and for getting us to consider what endless accumulation might portend."--Paul Duguid, Times Higher Education
"This book . . . is laid out like an invitation to such a sparring session. There you find the detailed arguments, spread out one by one. Get ready to highlight where you agree, note contradictions and arguments not carried through to their consequential end, and make annotations where you feel a new punch. The session will be worth the effort."--Herbert Burkert, Cyberlaw
"A lively, accessible argument . . . that all that stored and shared data is a serious threat to life as we know it."--Jim Willse, Newark Star Ledger
"A fascinating work of social and technological criticism. . . . The book explores the ways various technologies has altered the human relationship with memory, shifting us from a society where the default was to forget (and consequently forgive) to one where it is impossible to avoid the ramifications of a permanent record."--Philip Martin, Arkansas Democrat Gazette
"Mayer-Schönberger convincingly claims that our new status quo, the impossibility of forgetting, is severely misaligned to how the human brain works, and to how individuals and societies function. . . . Can anything be done? Delete is an accessible, thoughtful and alarming attempt to start debate."--Karlin Lillington, Irish Times
"To argue for more forgetting is counter-intuitive to those who value information, history and transparency, but the writer pursues it systematically and thoroughly."--Richard Thwaites, Canberra Times
"Surprising and fascinating. . . . Delete opens a highly useful debate."--Robert Fulford, National Post
"Delete offers many scary examples of how the control of personal information stored in e-memory can fall into the wrong hands. . . . Lucid, eminently readable."--Winifred Gallagher, Globe and Mail
"Delete is one of a number of smart recent books that gently and eruditely warn us of the rising costs and risks of mindlessly diving into new digital environments--without, however, raising apocalyptic fears of the entire project. . . . [Mayer-Schonberger] is a digital enthusiast with a realistic sense of how we might go very wrong by embracing powerful tools before we understand them."--Siva Vaidhyanathan, Chronicle of Higher Education
"In this brief book, Mayer-Schönberger focuses on a unique feature of the digital age: contemporaries have lost the capacity to forget. Many books on privacy frequently mention, but never address in detail, the implications of an almost perfect memory system that digital technology and global networks have brought about. . . . An interesting book, well within the reach of the intelligent reader."--Choice
"Clearly the conversation has begun, and Delete is well placed to contribute."--Matthew L. Smith, Identity in the Information Society
From the Back Cover
"If the gathering, storage, and processing of information puts us all in the center of a digital panopticon, the failure to forget creates a panopticon crossbred with a time-travel machine. Mayer-Schönberger catalogs the range of social concerns that are arising as technology favors remembering over forgetting, and offers some approaches that might give forgetting a respected place in the digital world. Read this book. Don't forget about forgetting."--David Clark, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
"Delete is, ironically, a book you will not forget. It provides a sweeping but well-balanced account of the challenges we face in a world where our digital traces are saved for life. These issues transcend just issues of privacy but go to the heart of how our society and we as individuals function, remember, and learn. I highly recommend this most informative and delightful book."--John Seely Brown, University of Southern California, coauthor of The Social Life of Information
"An erudite and wide-reaching account of the role that forgetting has played in history--and how forgetting became an exception due to digital technology and global networks. Mayer-Schönberger vividly depicts the legal, social, and cultural implications of a world that no longer remembers how to forget. Delete deserves the broadest possible readership."--Paul M. Schwartz, Berkeley School of Law
"In a work of extraordinary breadth and erudition, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger broadens the 'privacy' debate to encompass the dimension of time. His concept of 'digital forgetting' reshapes how sociologists, technologists, and policymakers must define and protect individual autonomy as technology usurps the prerogatives of human memory."--Philip Evans, Boston Consulting Group
"Human society has taken for granted the fact of forgetting. Technology has made us less able to forget, and this change, as Mayer-Schönberger nicely demonstrates, will have a profound effect on society. We as a culture must think carefully and strategically about this incredibly significant problem. Delete will spark a debate we need to have."--Lawrence Lessig, author of Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy
"Delete is a refreshingly philosophical take on the new dilemmas created by extensive digital documentation of our daily lives. Mayer-Schönberger's background in business and technology leads him to a creative and novel response to the challenges generated by persistent storage of data. Delete is a valuable contribution."--Frank Pasquale, Seton Hall Law School
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For anyone who misplaces his spectacles or keys, this may seem surprising, but Mayer-Schonberger makes the case for it in at least some aspects of daily life. He concentrates on old resentments, which may cripple us if brooded over too long.
Maybe. Further, he claims that the digital revolution has made it impossible for us to usefully forget.
He presents a couple of examples: One is a Canadian psychologist who wrote a research paper in a journal mentioning his use of LSD in the '60s. American immigration officials, using Internet search, matched his name and - declaring him to be a dangerous drug user - denied him entrance.
This seems to me less a problem of too much remembering than of too stupid governors, but Mayer-Schonberger does explain in great detail about how much information the combination of digital speed and cheap memory can store. And even create, by data mining.
It doesn't have to be information you put on the Internet, either. Insurance companies routinely get records of most of the prescriptions pharmacies sell, and they can reconstruct much of your medical history - a history that is otherwise legally supposed to be private.
This part is plenty scary, whether there is a problem with not forgetting or not.
Mayer-Schonberger then leads us through various legal and technical fixes to the problem of too much memory too long. The Europeans have taken a hard-line view of privacy. This leads to absurd results: German universities are not allowed to reveal who they have awarded degrees to.
This much of "Delete" is must reading, unless you've lived in a cave the past 20 years.
The remainder, the frankly controversial part of "Delete," is only interesting if Mayer-Schonberger has already persuaded you that not forgetting is a problem.
He proposes, as a partial and initial defense, a policy of sunsetting or expiring digital data.
This is problematic. He uses the example of yesterday's newspaper. However, the uselessness of yesterday's paper resides in the fact that we have not yet had time to forget what was in it. A copy of a 100-year-old paper is worth more now than it was when fresh.
Imagine how useful it would be socially if 150 years ago the whole world had had as many newspapers as America or Europe, and if they had published daily temperatures. We could save billions in trying to reconstruct past climate and maybe trillions if the result showed that global warming has been overstated.
Similarly, in the United States, we consign census data to only temporary oblivion, keeping it secret for decades but then throwing it open for research useful to both sociologists and geneaologists.
So there is a throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater aspect to Mayer-Schonberger's solution.
Also, we now know that when we call up memories, we distort them when we restore them to our brains. Elizabeth Loftus demonstrated this conclusively 40 years ago (her book "Eyewitness" ought to be read by every person called to jury duty), but Mayer-Schonberger does not mention her. He does refer to a Harvard colleague who has made similar studies more recently, but they seem not to care about such things as accuracy of testimony about past events.
It may be well to forget past insults but then again, maybe not.
Mayer-Schonberger writes, "Forgetting is at least in part a constructive process of filtering information based on relevance."
Whether that's a bug or a feature depends on circumstances.
Telling this history Mayer-Schönberger draws a picture of ever growing body of information about us, as individual members of society, and the way we may interact with it, even if in an indirect way. One of his favorite examples is the story of Stacy Snyder who was denied her teaching certificate because of a picture she had posted on MySpace of her dressed as a drunken pirate. The gist of the argument, if I read it correctly, is that while it becomes easier and cheaper to collect and store information about us and our behavior, we, as individuals, are losing more and more control over that information (once you or somebody else posts your picture online, you no longer have control over where it may appear, who may see it, and in what context). He labels it in terms of remembering and forgetting - if in the past it was difficult and costly to remember and easy and cheap to forget, this balance has reversed.
These days it is so easy and cheap to remember that we start losing our ability to forget. The repercussions of this development are that the accessible, durable, and comprehensive digital record of our past directly impacts the way we conduct and make decisions in the present. For example, I know that once this post will be published, it will become a permanent record of my take on "Delete". Knowing that, I should probably be very careful with what I say about it, because it may impact my future interaction not just with Viktor (with whom I am currently working), but also with other potential readers of this post. I may choose to self censor myself, to present a biased view, or abstain from publishing it altogether. The point is that my behavior today is guided by the uncertainty about the future uses of this information - on the one hand I know it is there to stay, probably attached to my name, but on the other hand, I have no idea who, when, and under what circumstances will use and interpret this post.
To better understand this idea, I think it is helpful to focus on some aspects of socio-psychological functioning of information, which Mayer-Schönberger discusses in length in the book. One of those aspects is interpretation. The bits and bytes in themselves do not mean much, unless we interpret them (similar to the idea of data in knowledge management). It is through interpretation that the information gains meaning and thus also social functions. This leads to another important aspect, which is context. In different contexts we will interpret the same information differently and this is one of the dangers of digitized memory - information is recorded in a certain time and in a given context, but when it gets retrieved at a different time and in a different context, it will likely have different meaning. Thus we are losing control over the interpretation and meaning of the digital information about us and our behavior. When we, as individuals, are losing control over the information, we are becoming powerless compared to other actors (like the state and the corporate world) who have the capacity to collect, store, and retrieve information about us, thus making them even more powerful (they know more about us than we know about them and they control the interpretation process of information about us). Another aspect of this is the negation of time, which threats our ability to make rational decision in the present. Instead of focusing on the big picture, we are focusing on managing the mundane details of our lives, because those are recorded and stored and will have impact on us in the future.
The shift of control over information and negation of time are at the heart of Mayer-Schönberger's concern with digital remembering. The rest the book is dedicated to analysis of potential responses to this concern and finally a proposal of an alternative solution. The book lists six different potential responses, each addresses either the power or the time aspect of digital remembering on one of the three levels: individual, law, and technology. The six solutions are digital abstinence, information privacy rights, digital privacy rights (sort of a DRM for personal information), cognitive adjustment, information ecology, and perfect contextualization. Each one of the approaches has its merits, but each one also has its drawbacks either at the conceptual or practical levels.
Mayer-Schönberger suggests expiration date for information as his solution to the negative effects of digital remembering. On the face of it, this is a rather straight forward idea - we need a piece of meta-data attached to each bit of information, which will determine how long this bit of information should be retained. Of course, his suggestion is much more nuanced and he goes into various scenarios of different ways in which information can be forgotten or partially forgotten, but I hope my one-line explanation carries over the gist of the argument. Mayer-Schönberger acknowledges in his book that expiration date addresses the time-related aspect of digital remembering, but it does little at the "power" front. In fact, the "power" is supposedly influenced indirectly, as by allowing automatic deletion of information the powerful side in the interaction is giving up some of its powers (if my power stems from having information about you and being able to mine it for my purposes, giving up the control over when this information is deleted, is equivalent to giving up part of my power).
I think that the main weakness of the expiration date argument lies not in the fact that it focuses primarily on the "time" aspect of the issue, but in the fact that it puts great hopes into the agency of the user. The idea of expiration dates gives user the power to decide for each and every piece of information how long they want to retain it. However, I am still slightly skeptical whether the user will use that power, because it comes with a cost. This idea assumes that (1) people want to make a decision about each bit of information they process and (2) they are capable of estimating the usable time span of each and every bit. I am not sure that people are that zealous about managing their information and are that thoughtful about the future prospects of its use. Just imagine if you had to decide for each one of the 300 pictures from your last trip, how long you want to retain it... wouldn't it be easier just to keep them all? ... just in case?
However, I think the main task of "Delete" is not offering a practical solution, but undertaking a rather ambitious conceptual and educational task - bringing the idea of "finitness of information" (p.171) into the public consciousness. There may be numerous socio-technical solution to the negative effects of digital remembering, but you need a well stated argument to start thinking in that direction. I think this is what "Delete" is trying to achieve.
It seems to me that there's a profound difference between human memory and human ability to access mass recorded data. We don't presume that because our species has access to telescopes or x-rays that we have, collectively, super-vision. We certainly don't assume that this new power will damage our collective psyche. Mayer-Schonberger suggests, though, that we're all in possession of cyborg-like "digital memories" that run in damaging opposition to thousands of years of human cognitive development. It has gotten so bad, in fact, that the glut of information is impeding our ability to make decisions in the here-and-now.
He "proves" this with a hypothetical anecdote about a woman making plans to meet an old friend who is reminded - by going through old emails - that she and he had a falling out. According to Mayer-Schonberger in the analog era, she would have completely forgotten his failings. Because of "digital memory" she remembers them, and it colors her enjoyment of her friend in the present. The example is simplistic and assumes that the same negative past experiences could not have been recalled through analog means (anyone with a box of letters from an ex knows this to be false) and that we are too unsophisticated in the digital age to contextualize our own memories - whatever triggers them.
But it isn't just personal memory that's awkwardly attached to Mayer-Schonberger's conception of 'digital memory.' Social-networking era exhibitionism is not a problem of over-sharing, according to him, it's a problem of under-forgetting. This seems to let the perpetrators off the hook completely. If one is to post an inappropriate, compromising, or offensive picture or opinion online - they aren't to blame when that post is used against them, we - as a society - are to blame for not allowing the memory if this embarrassment to fade.
SPOILER ALERT (?) The solution, according to Mayer-Schonberger is to build "forgetting" into digital systems. Files could be meta-tagged with expiration dates that would allow them to self-destruct after a certain period of time and built-in DRM would allow the creators of posts and images to prohibit use outside of the originally intended purpose and context. Just imagine - a world in which your excel files and word docs are all set to self-destruct! Even digital cameras would set their contents to erase themselves in a set timespan. Because, of course, when people are in the act of doing something compromising - they have the foresight to know that they'll want the photos erased when they become problematic. Also, of course, no one has ever defeated DRM or simply copy-pasted text or images into files they control in order to spread a message beyond the control of the original creator.
While I share Mayer-Schonberger's preference to protect unsophisticated and/or powerless people from accidentally causing themselves harm due to information that is shared and retained beyond their control, I find his enforced-deletion solution troubling. He extol's Microsoft's best practices of advising (principally corporate) users to retain data no longer than is absolutely necessary to business needs and/or legal compliance. But, do we really want our corporations and our government in the habit of conveniently forgetting everything they do as quickly as they can? Don't we, as citizens, want the ability to comb the "memory" of companies who knowingly concealed health risks or governments who concealed anything from conflicts of interest in regards to the financial sector to the true justifications for a war?
Mayer-Schonberger argues that a society can enforce "remembering" through law and protect data that is deemed important. But, so much of this kind of data is not found to be important until long after its creation. In his utopia of self-destructing files, we'd never know all the things we never knew. The advantage of this hypothetical playing field -in my opinion - goes entirely to those with the biggest sins they'd like forgotten.
There may be something better than our current world of unbalanced access to and sharing of data. I imagine that both formal and informal solutions to rebuilding reputation after online humiliation/transgressions will emerge, especially as an entire generation posts its thoughts from adolescence onward to facebook, tumblr, twitter, and beyond. I had hoped that this book, with the praise it has garnered from the digital cognoscenti, would offer an interesting solution. Instead, it left me feeling that the status quo was pretty much okay. At least it's better than what Mayer-Schonberger has to offer.
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