I wanted to post reflections on various readings here before, but never got to it. This is my first attempt. I just finished reading “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age” by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, who is directing the I+I Centre where I am spending this semester. The book tackles the phenomenon of digital remembering, its potential social repercussions, and ways to address those. On the publisher’s website it says that the book:
“…looks at the surprising phenomenon of perfect remembering in the digital age, and reveals why we must reintroduce our capacity to forget. Digital technology empowers us as never before, yet it has unforeseen consequences as well… In Delete, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger traces the important role that forgetting has played throughout human history, from the ability to make sound decisions unencumbered by the past to the possibility of second chances. The written word made it possible for humans to remember across generations and time, yet now digital technology and global networks are overriding our natural ability to forget–the past is ever present, ready to be called up at the click of a mouse. Mayer-Schönberger examines the technology that’s facilitating the end of forgetting–digitization, cheap storage and easy retrieval, global access, and increasingly powerful software–and describes the dangers of everlasting digital memory, whether it’s outdated information taken out of context or compromising photos the Web won’t let us forget. He explains why information privacy rights and other fixes can’t help us, and proposes an ingeniously simple solution–expiration dates on information–that may.”
However, I think the book talks more about issues of information control and management, where forgetting is an important mechanism that allows the users to exercise their agency in an environment, which is becoming more and more information-intensive. The first half of the book is dedicated to setting the stage. It is a rather detailed and rich account of the history of the contemporary information environment particularly print, evolution of the memory devices and information storage, and development of information governance institutions (defined in broader terms) such as copyright. While I was aware of some of the stories, many of them were rather new to me. For example, did you know that the subject index, as an alphabetical list of topics covered in a book, was introduced in thirteenth century, but the idea of adding page numbers to the index to ease the actual navigation was added only in the sixteenth century? Quite interesting.
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 (that may be better done through establishing a startup :), 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.
Here is also Viktor’s talk about the book at Berkman, just about a month and a half ago (caution: it is rather long – over an hour):