Friday 13 November 2009

Forget about it

Delete, The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (Princeton University Press)

The capacity of organisations to collect, store, retrieve and disseminate information about people has always been a source of concern for civil libertarians. This anxiety has been heightened in an era in which data is no longer retained in analogue status, but in digital format. The all-seeing 20th-century dystopias as imagined in Nineteen-Eighty-Four or The Prisoner seem somewhat quaint now, what with their imagery of spies spending hours scouring reams of audio and video tapes, or laboriously collating information in folders stored in vast vaults.

Now governments and corporations can - and do - easily store, retrieve and contextualise personal data at the click of a button. More often this process is automatic. For instance, your own ‘recommended readings’ on Amazon have not arisen there by chance; they are a projection based on the summation of your past purchases and browsing. Likewise, search engines have mechanically accumulated a personal profile of you. Many have stored when you entered ‘getting married’, ‘buying a house’, when you searched for legal advice or sought self-diagnosis for a perceived illness.

But you will not remember having made all of these searches. Thus in many respects, search engines know more about you than you do yourself. Human beings forget; digital databases do not. You may have forgotten a spiteful email you once sent a friend in a fit of pique, but she still might have it. You might regret being reminded of its existence, and so might she - as she might have forgotten that she forgave you for it. Thus, Mayer-Schönberger suggests, the digital age is becoming an enemy of progress. Forgetting is what make us human. Amnesia is what allows us to move on, develop and mature.

Take the example of the personal diary. ‘If you have ever tried reading an old diary entry of yours from many years ago,’ he writes, ‘you may have felt a strange mixture of familiarity and foreignness, of sensing that you remember some, perhaps most, but never all the text’s original meaning’. The past is often not as we remember it owing to the porous nature of the human mind. Individual memories that we retain are also invariably imperfect, because we re-remember them constantly. Like a piece of paper that is repeatedly Xeroxed, or a message conveyed in a game of ‘Chinese Whispers’, errors are introduced each time the piece of information is transmitted or re-conveyed.

Many sentiments in long-lost diaries appear unfamiliar because our identities are in constant flux (1). I am a slightly different person than I was last month, and a substantially different person to who I was last century.  But the internet is making it more difficult to let go of the past. Think of those sorry souls whose lurid emails, forwarded throughout the world, cost them their jobs and earned them ongoing global notoriety. Or others whose photographic evidence of youthful indiscretions posted on Facebook have landed them in trouble. Or the case of Canadian psychotherapist who was barred entry to the United States in 2006 because a database revealed that he admitted to taking LSD in the 1960s.

Society’s and the state’s increasing reliance on digital information errs in that it perceives ‘the self’ as static and fixed, and it in turn can lead to arrested development. Mayer-Schönberger cites the example of an American internet researcher called Gordon Bell, whose stated aim:

‘is to capture one’s entire life’ digitally. He has ‘scanned and stored on hard disk almost all of his paper notes and notebooks… copies of all emails he sends or receives (more than 120,000 of them) and an image of every web page he visits. He audio-records and digitally stores many conversations he has with others; and the little black box he wears round his neck is… a Microsoft-developed digital camera that takes a snapshot every 30 seconds or whenever someone approaches Bell, all day, every day’.

We all used to laugh in the 1980s at those Japanese tourists who video-recorded their entire holidays, and thus had a perfect visual record of a vacation they didn’t actually experience. While Mr Bell’s behaviour might be excessive, it is only a more extreme version of the popular micro-blog, in which among many there is a likewise inclination to constantly record and chronicle one’s life, and consequently having little time to live it.

This is the psychological fall-out, but Mayer-Schönberger addresses the political price of digitised virtual memory. Transparency means we inhabit a virtual ‘village community’, a confining, claustrophobic realm in which we fear we are being watched, and in which we modify our behaviour accordingly. The digital age is banishing the liberating, anonymous, experimental ethos of an ‘urban’ community. As well as being psychologically regressive, digitised virtual memory can be the enemy of political progress. Those wishing to enter a country with a questionable human rights record, say, or applying for a job at a large corporation, will now more likely pre-censor themselves appropriately. This is the realisation of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, which reinforces the power discrepancy between the surveyed and the surveillant. Caution and silence will be the price the surveyed will pay. (There are innocuous, if still regrettable, examples of how this is operating. Anecdotally, I know that many people now think twice of innocently making a fool of themselves at a weddings or parties for fear of ending up on Facebook or YouTube. The virtual digital age may also be the enemy of fun.)

Yet the inability to ‘delete’ could have even more sinister consequences. As the author reminds us, in the 1930s the Netherlands enforced a comprehensive population registry containing the name, birth date, address, religion, and other personal information of each citizen. This was obtained by the German occupiers of the 1940s, and perhaps as a consequence Dutch Jews had the lowest survival rate of all Jews in Europe in the Second World War. Even Jewish refugees in the Netherlands fared better than Dutch Jews, because there were no records of them. In a time when the argument ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ is worryingly employed in favour of government databases and ID cards, this raises the question: We might not have anything to hide or fear from this government, but what about the next one?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s does have some recommended remedies, his most vehement being that information should have expiry dates, but they are not convincing. The fundamental problem is that you can’t un-invent the internet. His diagnosis is intriguing, nonetheless. Delete suggests that the digital age, often championed as humanity’s greatest leap forward since the Industrial Revolution, may ironically herald a great leap back.


1) Take the example of Helena Burton, who, aged 15, wrote in her diary on March 2, 1991: ‘I didn’t get to school in time this morning so I didn’t bother turning up. I really hate my parents. I honestly wish I was an orphan. Maybe I’ll murder them. I want some ice cream.’ From Cringe: Toe-Curlingly Embarrassing Teenage Diaries, by Sarah Brown (Michael O’Mara, 2009); extract from The Times, 23 September 2009


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