Book of the week: Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

Will the web's total recall threaten our identities? wonders Henry Farrell

October 8, 2009

Information technology has grown so entwined with our lives that it is easy to overlook the marvels flowering forth from it. Few would have thought 20 years ago that a service such as Google - which collates an extraordinary volume of information and presents search results in a couple of seconds - was possible. No one would have predicted that it would be free.

But if Viktor Mayer-Schonberger is right, these technologies may grow to entangle and choke us. They create a kind of external memory, recording our actions and interactions in digital video footage and thousands upon thousands of digital photographs. Our movements on the web are tracked by advertising services using cookies (snippets of code that allow their creators to identify how we move from site to site). Our movements in physical space are increasingly recorded, too. If you look at them from a different angle, marvels may become monsters.

Mayer-Schonberger argues that these developments challenge how we organise society and how we understand ourselves. He begins with an anecdote. Stacy Snyder, a Pennsylvania student teacher who was unwise enough to share a picture of herself apparently drunk on the social-networking site MySpace, was told this constituted unprofessional behaviour and was denied her teaching certificate as a result. This story illustrates the problems of digital memory. Had Snyder taken her course 20 years ago, no one in authority would have come across her MySpace page. But the internet does not forget. Not only MySpace, but also internet search engines, had trawled and cached Snyder's site, allowing a teacher at her school to find it and to complain to her supervisors.

This story, and others like it, worry Mayer-Schonberger. When we record our lives and allow others to search these recordings, we are likely to make mistakes and reveal things that we should not. Indeed, we reveal things about ourselves without ever realising that we are revealing them. Few users of the internet understand how much of their behaviour is recorded, and fewer still think about how newer technologies can be used to record our offline lives too. Permanent searchable records mean that indiscretions may continue to haunt us decades later, or indeed may come to haunt us anew, as non-digital records are digitised and made widely available.

Mayer-Schonberger's fears may be overstated. Anecdotes are poor evidence. For every story about the problems of digital memory, one can find another about its unexpected benefits. Furthermore, digital memory has its own processes of decay. Hard drives fail. The internet has grown over and around the ruins of its earlier versions; web pages have succumbed to link rot, their hyperlinks leading nowhere; there are scripts that rely on defunct or non-existent resources; and blogs have been abandoned at the mercy of link spammers. Projects that try to keep track of this growth, such as Brewster Kahle's, or to render it intelligible by tagging and labelling content, are overwhelmed. Even Google, with its enormous resources, has difficulty keeping track of a web that consists as much of dynamically generated content as of static pages.

That said, Mayer-Schonberger is still on to something. Some of these problems are being mitigated through technological change. As people move more of their personal information into the "cloud" of online data services offered by Google, Amazon and others, it becomes less vulnerable to decay (thanks to multiple redundant back-up servers) and more vulnerable to being organised and used by others. Facial-recognition technology allows visual information to be searched and organised with ever-greater accuracy. Professional geeks who were caught up in the excitement of interactive media two years ago are shifting their obsession from the software itself to statistical analysis of the very large data sets that it produces.

Furthermore, cautionary anecdotes may not be representative, but they can still have substantial social consequences. Even if stories such as Snyder's never become common, they may, as Mayer-Schonberger observes, have a chilling effect. People may be less willing to engage in free discussion and debate if they know that what they say is being recorded and may be used against them at a future date.

This is already happening in US politics, where recent scandals have taught politicians not to say anything even faintly controversial in circumstances where it might be recorded. American political discourse has become even blander than it used to be. More worrying, non-politicians too are finding that their actions may be publicised in unexpected ways. used public records to create a clickable map that allows Californians to see which neighbours donated to Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage amendment passed in California last year. Even leftwingers with no sympathy for anti-gay rights conservatives can see how this could hurt them, too.

Mayer-Schonberger is better at capturing these social dynamics than most other legal academics writing about technology. In part this is because he is more interested in human beings than in the technologies themselves. At its heart, his case against digital memory is humanist. He worries that it will not only change the way we organise society, but it will damage our identities. Identity and memory interact in complicated ways. Our ability to forget may be as important to our social relationships as our ability to remember. To forgive may be to forget; when we forgive someone for serious transgressions we in effect forget how angry we once were at them.

Delete argues that digital memory has the capacity both to trap us in the past and to damage our trust in our own memories. When I read an old email describing how angry I once was at someone, I am likely to find myself becoming angry again, even if I have since forgiven the person. I may trust digital records over my own memory, even when these records are partial or positively misleading. Forgetting, in contrast, not only serves as a valuable social lubricant, but also as a bulwark of good judgment, allowing us to give appropriate weight to past events that are important, and to discard things that are not. Digital memory - which traps us in the past - may weaken our ability to judge by distorting what we remember.

These arguments are the most fascinating part of Delete, but they are not fully developed. Perhaps they are tentative because neither the language of traditional humanism nor the newer intellectual tools of technological and social analysis are well suited to exploring them. Perhaps also they could be further developed in the future through critical engagement with plausible counter-arguments. Tyler Cowen's new book Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World provides a quite different understanding of personal identity and how new technologies affect it. For Cowen, a moderate libertarian, these new technologies are largely beneficial because they allow us to select flows of information that we can use to construct personal internal orderings of the world. Cowen sees digital memory as a tool for creating identity rather than a threat to it.

After a decade or more of books examining digital technology's consequences for the law, politics and society, we are finally beginning to see interesting books that talk about its effect on the individual. Delete is a highly promising (and often fascinating) first effort to spell out the problems, and to think through how they might be engaged.


Viktor Mayer-Schonberger is associate professor of public policy and director of the Information + Innovation Policy Research Centre at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He is also a faculty affiliate of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Mayer-Schonberger studied law at the universities of Salzburg, Cambridge and Harvard. He received a masters degree in economics from the London School of Economics, and the venia docendi (Habilitation) on information law, legal informatics and legal theory from Karl Franzens University in Graz. The recipient of numerous awards for innovation and entrepreneurship, he was voted one of Austria's top five software entrepreneurs in 1991.

In his spare time, he likes to travel, visit the cinema and learn about architecture.

Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

By Viktor Mayer-Schonberger

Princeton University Press

256pp, £16.95

ISBN 9780691138619

Published 21 October 2009

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