Category Archives: society

Footage from the workshop on core Internet values

With a slight delay, I would like to share video footage of the workshop I organized at the last IGF in Vilnius.  This is the same workshop for which I was seeking your input about a month and a half ago.

The full title of the workshop is “Core Internet values and the principles of Internet Governance across generations” and the idea is exactly that – to have a dialogue between Internet pioneers and young Internet activists on the core of what the Internet stands for.

We had a great group of people.  On the one hand, there were young people from different parts of the world.  On the other hand, there were more senior Internet thinkers and practitioners.  Here is the full list of participants (in alphabetical order):

  • Bill Graham, Global Strategic Engagement, the Internet Society (ISOC)
  • ‘Gbenga Sesan, Paradigm New Nigeria
  • Drew Smith, Student at Elon Univeristy and participant in Imagining the Internet project
  • Grace Bomu, Young Kenyan lawyer, secretary of the ICT Consumers Association of Kenya, and cultural activist
  • Laura DeNardis, Yale Information Society Project
  • Marie Casey, Elected female representative at the ITU Youth Forum of future leaders, Geneva, 2009
  • Nii Narku Quaynor, Ghana.com
  • Rafik Dammak, Tokyo University
  • Vinton G. Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google
  • Vladimir Radunovic, Diplo Foundation

Ian Peter, who chaired the last year workshop on Internet Governance, was also supposed to take part in the workshop, but unfortunately he was not able to make it to Vilnius.

I hoped to be able to share a report from the workshop here, but other tasks take priority at the moment and I will be posting the report later.  I do think we had a very interesting and lively discussion, so I thought at this point I will just share the video footage of the event.  If you have a couple of hours to spare, I think you will find this engaging.

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As always, your thoughts and comments are most welcome!

How do young adults access websites?

I am currently at the fifth IGF in Vilnius and yesterday I presented some data from our study on the online routines of the digital natives at the GigaNet.  Here, i would like to share one observation that I find particularly interesting.  In the graph below you can see a summary of our coding of how our participants reached website during our observation sessions. It reflects coding of over 650 instance of accessing website in each China and the USArrivingAtAWebsite-Summary.

As we can see, in most cases, our participants searched; this is consistent across both groups and I think was not particularly surprising.  Similarly, the use of bookmarks was equally consistent across both groups, which in my view was more surprising (perhaps since I am not a big bookmark user).

The differences, as you can see, were in the use of autocomplete and reliance on links.  Interestingly, in the Chinese sample, there were significantly more instances of using reliance on links compared to the use of autocomplete.  In the US sample what we see is practically a mirror image of this trend – significantly larger proportion of instances involved the use of autocomplete.

What makes it even more interesting is a glimpse at where do the Chinese participants follow the links from.  We are still organizing that data, but my initial observation is that many of those are coming from websites that basically large repositories of links (for example take a look at www.2345.com or www.114la.com).

All this brings up some thoughts about the role of English in the online experience.  In my view, one plausable explanation of this data can be the knowledge of English language.  I can see how use of the autocomplete function comes more “naturally” to the native speakers, compared to those for whom English is a second language.  The large collections of links that were utilized by our Chinese participants, further support this idea – why would you make an effort of typing in an inconvenient language, when you can go to just one website, where all the links you use are?

There are currently more questions than statements suggested by the snippet above – there is still a lot of work to be done on these data.  Having said that, I’d love to hear your thought about this little observation.  Please share…

You can find the slides from the presentation here.

Is it the time to lobby?

It’s been quiet on this blog for a while, so I decided to share an observation based on some conversations I recently had at one of the Internet governance meetings.  The conversations were about ICT companies and the point was that while Western companies are extremely enthusiastic about emerging markets, they do not consider their regulatory systems with the same rigor as they do in the developed world.  In other words, while in the developed countries these companies invest considerable resources in working with the governments and lobbying, in the developing countries their efforts are primarily in marketing.  Even when they do work with governments, it is mostly done through the marketing departments where the governments are viewed primarily as costumers, less as regulators.

I heard similar observations from a number of industry players and also from a government official.  I listened and “filed” these observations, but they were  brought back to life with the recent explosion of the BlackBerry story.  You may know that the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and now also India and a number of other countries, are threatening to ban BlackBerry unless RIM allows them access to the encrypted email data of BlackBerry users, stored on the company’s servers.  India gave RIM an ultimatum until the end of the month to comply and the rumor is that the Indian government has similar plans for Google, Skype, and perhaps others.

I wonder how did RIM find itself in such a situation?  Will other global technological companies find themselves in a similar situation soon too?  Peter Svensson writes in Washington Post today:

“Threats by the governments of India, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to shut down BlackBerry’s corporate e-mail services reflect unease about a technology that the U.S. government also took a while to accept.  The foreign governments are essentially a decade behind in coming to terms with encryption, a technology that’s fundamental to the Internet as a medium of commerce. (…) RIM, the company behind the BlackBerry, doesn’t have years to wait for foreign governments to adopt the more relaxed U.S. stance toward encryption.”

I assume Svensson is right about his historical perspective; after all, writing about this is his bread an butter.  At the same time, given that all the governments currently having an issue with BlackBerry are in developing countries, I think he is missing the point made by the people I talked to about the Western companies’ attitudes to the emerging markets’ governments.

It did not take the US government years to figure out its stand on encryption on its own.  On the contrary, this position is a result of years of dialogue, argument, and debates between the government and the various interest groups, primarily the industry, through its lobbying activities, and the civil society.  We can see a similar discussion taking place these days around the issue of net neutrality.

It seems to me that until the RIMs, Googles, and Skypes of this world won’t take the regulators in the developing world as seriously as they take the governments back home, we will continue seeing more “BlackBerry” cases.  Until the multinational MICT companies will not engage in a meaningful  way with the local governments in the emerging markets, the barriers to their activities there will continue growing and become more sophisticated, especially when it comes to such a politicized area as information.

So, I wonder if it is the time for these companies to start lobbying in the developing world just the way they are lobbying here.  While I am aware of the potentially harmful influences of lobbying, it is an integral part of the policymaking mechanism and, for better or worse, it also has an educational impact on the policymakers.  At the end of the day, usually those are the governments that are catching up with technology, while the industry is ahead of the curve.

What do you think?  Is it the time to lobby?

The external voting question

This is somewhat a detour from the usual MICT stuff, but I hope you forgive me as I think the topic is interesting.

The Israeli political scene seems to be very disturbed recently.  No, it is not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is not about Iran, and it is not about about the recent tensions with Syria.  The debate is about a proposal by the government to amend external voting in the law or in other words to allow Israeli citizens abroad to vote in the election (HE).  I’ve heard this idea floating before, but I have never seen such a vibrant debate about this issue, which has recently become very close to my heart.

The situation today is that anybody holding an Israeli passport can vote in the Israeli election, but this person has to be physically present in Israel on the election day.  If you are studying, working, or simply on vacation abroad during the election day, you cannot go to the consulate and vote.  The only people entitled to vote remotely are diplomats and sailors.

The debate is happening on two levels.  On one level, it is a purely political debate, because some believe that the voters living abroad tend to vote to the right and thus the government is pushing for the change of law and the opposition is vigorously opposing it (HE1, HE2, HE3).  On another level, which constitutes most of the rhetoric, the debate is about values – should people who are not living in the country, particularly such country as Israel, be able to decide for those who will actually have to live with the consequences ? (HE1, HE2, HE3, He4, He5, HE6, HE7, HE8)

Deciding on big issues - poster calling for release of Gilad Shalit in Tel-Aviv

Some context may help understanding the later facet of the debate better.  Ever since the establishment of the state, people moving to live in Israel were referred to as “olim” or people who are “coming up” to live in and build the country.  On the other hand, people who left Israel to live elsewhere were referred to as “yordim,” meaning people who “stepped down,” left, deserted or abandoned the enterprise of building a Jewish state.  Traditionally, it was completely unacceptable to leave the country.  People who did that, and in fact their entire families, were frowned upon and looked down at.  However, in the past decade or so the criticism softened and in fact Israel is experiencing a brain drain (there are about 500-700K holders of Israeli passports currently living abroad).  The argument of those opposing the law thus resonates with the old sentiment and claims that the people who decided to abandon the not-so-luxurious Israeli realities have no right to decide for those who stayed.  In Israel, they say, election are not just about social issues, which are also important, but they are also about existential topics like war and peace.  If you are not going to live with the consequences of the vote, you shouldn’t have the right to vote, in the first place.  If it is important for you to vote, you can invest in coming to Israel once in four years to do that.

And this is where it is getting personal for me I guess.  It is getting personal because I couldn’t vote in the last election and given the frequency with which elections happen in Israel, I most probably won’t be able to vote in the next one as well.  The issue I am taking with this situation can also be viewed on a couple of level.  First, there is a financial  and logistic concern.  As a student, I simply cannot afford a random visit to Israel.  No matter how much I care about the democracy, the Maslow principles are getting in the way (not to mention the fact that my life is pretty much dictated by the academic calendar).  Second, there is a more substantive argument about my right to influence the reality of my country.  At the end of the day you can take an Israeli out of Israel, but you cannot take Israel completely out of the Israeli.  It starts with the fact that even though I am physically not in Israel at the moment, I am still influenced by the political decisions of its leaders (whether these are some of the taxes I am still paying or protests I encounter on campus, on  street or anywhere else).  But even more that that, as someone currently living abroad on a student visa, I think I should be able to influence the realities I am supposed to come back to upon completion of my studies.  I may decide not to go back to Israel after I finish my PhD, but then it will be a totally different story; right now I don’t have any tools to influence the reality I am supposed to return to, which I think is counterproductive for the country if it wants me back (somewhat related HE).

2008-12-ElectionPosters2Small

I may be wrong, but at this point of my life it somehow makes sense (and apparently not just to me – HE1, HE2).  Many of the arguments I read are dismissing any variation of making voting accessible to Israelis living abroad (here is an article in HE stating that 66% of Israelis oppose this idea).  It is “either you are with us or you are against us,” which I find both outdated and counterproductive.  There was a study triggered by this debate, which compared the external voting arrangements in other countries and showed how most of the world has reacted to globalization and to the fact that citizens who live abroad are still citizens of the country (PDF in HE).  In fact, one of the proposed versions of the law is taking a moderate approach that limits the period when one could vote abroad to six years, subject to spending at least 40 days over that period in Israel (HE), but the public discourse neglects the details and focuses on the principle.  This situation is similar to the arrangement in New-Zealand for example.  To be fair, some people do say that students should be given the right to vote (HE), but I think that if such an arrangement will be accepted, let’s say with the conditions similar to what is stated above, it should cover not just the students, but everybody else as well.

I wonder if you have any thoughts on the subject and what the situation is in your country?

On discourse and shaping of the information society

There was a very interesting talk at the Berkman Center back in January.  Julie Cohen, a law professor from Georgetown University, talked about her upcoming book “The Networked Self: Copyright, Privacy, and the Production of Networked Space.”

What I found particularly interesting about this talk is her attempt to introduce sociological literature into a predominantly legal debate.  Her point of departure is the gap between the rhetoric of law and policy aimed at shaping the information society and the realities on the ground.  For example, she points at the language of economic liberties as fueling the information society governance debate, but at the same time there are laws and regulations that significantly restrict those liberties being that through strong copyright or weak individual privacy protections.  She also highlights that while the policy discourse is usually abstract, the individual’s interpretation of the law and his or her interaction with information and technology is very concrete and situated in a particular physical reality.  Although she focuses on the policy debate in the US, I think her framework can be helpful in thinking about discourse and policymaking elsewhere.

Reaching across the disciplinary isle is not a trivial task and during Cohen’s talk at Berkman it was interesting to see how, during the Q&A, the lawyers in the room took her presentation to different directions from where I think it would go has she been giving her talk in a Communication or an STS departments.  Yet, I think she did a very good job linking the abstract thinking of sociologists about the concrete actions of people to the concrete thinking of the legal scholars about the abstract concepts of the law.  I view it is a part of a very important interdisciplinary dialogue we should have in the field and on purely selfish grounds it helps me to think about communicating the relevance of my dissertation research to the more “hard core” policy debate.

You are invited to watch the talk as well as to read its coverage on Ethan Zuckerman’s, David Weinberger’s, and John Palfrey’s blogs.  In addition, I found a recent paper written by Julie Cohen, which provides an outline of her book (in case you don’t have the time to watch the video).

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Enjoy!

The duality of hoidays

Quoting my dear friend, Anichka: “Hello Two Thousand and Ten! You be good now.”  This is my first post in the new year and I would like to use this opportunity to share a short semi-theoretical observation.

There was an article in the NY Times titled “Saying No, No, No to the Ho-Ho-Ho.”  The article is about people who have decided not to celebrate Christmas in 2009.  People did it for various reasons, but the following quote from Renata Rafferty, a 53-year-old philanthropy adviser, I think summarizes the overall sentiment.  She said that she decided not to stress herself by “conforming to some tyranny of the ‘shoulds.’”

I think this idea of the “tyranny of ‘shoulds'” is a great example of social structures as those are defined in the Theory of Structuration.  We do things because this is the way it is, because we are used to.  This is how we grew up doing them and we do not think much about their meaning or why we partake in that specific activity.  People celebrate Christmas (or any other holiday for that matter) in a particular way because they should and because they grew up doing it that way.  People in many places over the world shop away the month of December, just because this is “expected” and constantly reinforced.  For example, until recently, once of the jewelry counters in a local mall, had a sign saying “Accessorize your love this Christmas” and that was the leitmotif of the entire holiday season elsewhere.

However, ideas such as those presented in the NYT article, are an example of reflexive monitoring of our behavior.  It provides a collection of opinion where people are discursively reflecting on their behavior, which in turn allows them to change it. The fact that this reflection is discursive allows others (like me, and now you reading this post) to reevaluate their behavior regarding that structure.  The interesting part in my eyes, that if you read the comments to the article you can see that this discursive reflection is used by some to reinforce their current behavior (particularly for those who don’t like what they see the holiday has become) or to alter it (the article was an “aha” moment for some of the readers) – all this happens in the context of how each one of those people is celebrating Christmas and how they grew up thinking about it (read, duality of structure).  Moreover, for yet another category of readers, especially those who like Christmas and the way it is celebrated, this discursive reflection caused to look for an alternative explanation as to why they think it should be kept the way it is.  Overall, there can be a great number of different reactions, but all of them would be fueled by the same reflective mechanism.

I think this is a really nice and interesting example of how the structuration works.  What do you think?  I only hope that I am not that owner of a hummer (theory) who views everything as nails (structuration).

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Our modern Babel?

I wonder what do people think about the potential repercussions of the introduction of IDNs, particularly in terms of fragmentation of the Internet.  In this post I provide some background about the languages on the web, some of my thoughts, and finally questions for which I would love to hear your thoughts.

After many years of debates, International Domain Names (IDNs) have finally become more tangible with the announcement of the Fast Track by ICANN earlier this year.  Right now it is open only to states and territories recognized in the ISO 3166-1 regulation.  A number of countries have already applied for registering their Internet country suffixes in their local languages (IDN ccTLDs).  For example, Egypt announced that they are going to register “.مصر”, which stands for Egypt in Arabic, and Russia started the registration process for “.рф,” which stands for Russian Federation.

Overall, introduction of the IDNs has been met with a lot of enthusiasm.  In the last ICANN meeting in Seol and at the last IGF this was celebrated as the final internationalization of the Internet.  The minister of communication of Egypt was quoted saying that the “Internet now speaks Arabic” and the European Union has also declared that they are going to allow registration of .eu in all 23 official languages of the Union.  People are celebrating the diversity.

At the same time, as expected, not everybody is excited about this development.  It is widely held that the primary opposition to IDNs has been voiced by the trademarks holders.  After sort of figuring out how to protect their trademarks in the current, Roman script dominated, cyberspace (such as the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy), they are not particularly psyched about the need to do it again in dozens of other languages and potentially under dozens of other regulatory regimes.

However, not only the trademarks holders are not excited about the new IDNs.  There are also those, who voice concerns about fragmentation of the Internet as a result of adoption of domain names that would be accessible only to speakers of a particular language.  Dwayne Bailey, Research Director of the African Network for Localisation, spoke at the IGF about the danger of monolingual silos or as he put it: “A multilingual world of mono-lingualism.”  Karine Barzliai Nahon wrote a post on this topic, addressing particularly the situation in Israel, but alluding to similar concerns.  I personally had thoughts along the same lines when I first heard about the idea of IDNs and we can find similar arguments even at the very beginning of the debate about IDNs (for example here).

From where I stand as a user of the Internet (and I think most of the people who read those lines share this position), the Internet emerges as this enormous modern (knowledge and information) Tower of Babel.  There is so much information out there and it all is accessible to me at my laptop – all I need to do is to type a query in the search engine or enter a URL.  This is possible primarily because I feel at ease with both the technology and the English language.

Even though English is not the only language online, we can still access most of the content in English.  As some of the stats suggest, in 2008 only 31% of the online content was in English and that percentage was shrinking.  Chinese accounted for 20% and Spanish for 7%.  Between 2000 and 2008, the amount of content in Arabic grew 2064%, in Chinese 755%, and in Portuguese 668%.  However, even if the content itself is in a language that I do not understand, there are automatic translators that are good enough to allow me understanding, and maybe even engaging with, materials in languages other than those that I know.  All I need is to enter a URL of a website into an automatic translator, and here it is at my fingertips.  Isn’t it wonderful?

The “danger” of IDNs thus is fragmentation of content and as a result fragmentation of the Internet itself.  If I am unable to type in a URL of a website I won’t be able to access it, even before I reach the point where I need a translation.  The result could be that different cultural groups will isolate themselves by using the language barrier and we might lose the wealth of information that is out there.  This would be an equivalent of what happened to the Biblical Tower of Babel when all the different languages were introduced – the tower fell.  Our modern (knowledge and information) Tower of Babel might fall as well.

These were some of my initial thoughts and these are the concerns voiced by others as well.  However, the more I think about it the less categorical picture emerges.  Here are some of my more recent thoughts:

  • To start with, it is not clear how much attention people pay to the URLs and there is quite a lot of research out there showing that people don’t use URLs for web navigation that much.  I think this is a major point in our thinking about the “threat” and “benefits” of IDNs.  I am not at all convinced that URLs matter.
  • Second, I am not sure how much people in fact consume content that is not in languages that they know.  I mean, it may well be that the content online is already segregated and having internationalized URLs will not change much.  I have yet met a native English speaker who was a regular reader of websites in Russian or Chinese (I see a lot of the opposite, but not that).
  • Third, I think it is reasonable to assume that just as we have automatic translators that allow browsing entire websites in languages other than those that we know, there will be a technological solution that will make the URLs just as transparent.
  • Same goes for keyboards.  If we will insist on typing the URLs, virtual or projection keyboards can allow having an unlimited number of scripts on a single keyboard.  In fact, in this kind of technical solutions, I do believe in letting the markets speak and if there is enough demand for IDNs and enough demand for bypassing the IDNs, the technical solutions will appear.
  • Also, as the rhetoric of IDNs suggests, they are aimed not at people who are already online and are comfortable with English, but at those who for various reasons, are not online yet and for whom English is a barrier.  It is easy for us to talk about potential loss of our access to the (dare I say underutilized) wealth of information from a position of relative power.  It is quite different for those who do not have any access at all.
  • Finally, it may be natural that we do not understand all the content that is out there.  After all this is how our society became as diverse as it is.  Moreover the effort we need to put into learning and understanding another culture makes the experience even more rewarding.  So, maybe the IDNs are just a natural development?

My bottom line is that while I do share some concerns regarding the IDNs’ potential contribution to the fragmentation of the Internet, I am not at all convinced that this is what will necessarily happen.  Of course, one can think of scenarios where some governments force registration of local domains in a particular language, but even in that case, I am not sure it will work.  Similarly, I am not 100% sure that English is the main barrier to access and effective use of the Web.  I think there are other barriers such as lack of physical infrastructure or lack of technical literacy.  But perhaps more than ever before I think this is a case where we should let the users of the Internet make up their minds whether they want to use internationalized domain names or not.  The history suggests that the currently connected won’t do it, but perhaps the 6 billions of those who are not connected will.

These are some of my thoughts on the subject.  What do you think?  Will IDNs cause further fragmentation of the Internet?  Or will they increase the diversity of the content online and make the Web more accessible?

“Digital” vs. “real”

Evgeny Morozov started an interesting conversation on the webpages of the Prospect Magazine about the role of “new” media in civic activism under repressive regimes.  He is rather skeptical about the equation “internet=democracy” and provides a plethora of examples where relying on “new” media can stagnate and/or backfire at attempts of civil activism or apprising.

I find particularly compelling his longitudinal view of things as opposed to focusing on a momentary instance (i.e. Twitter/Facebook/OtherTrendyWebsite Revolution).  For example, he refers to the protests in Belarus, which followed their presidential election in 2006 – there were flash mob protests organized using LiveJournal, which attracted a lot of attention from the Western media.  However, looking back, the results of those protests and the online activism are minimal to non-existent.

However, Evgeny does not stop there and suggests that the oppressive regimes are also learning to use the web.  Not only they use the web to to get to the activists (for example see how the Iranian government is using the web to identify the particularly active individuals in the post-election protests in the country), but they are also learning to use the “new” media to fight back and even to predict future unrest.

Evgeny explicitly mentions Clay Shirky as “the man most responsible for the intellectual confusion over the political role of the internet.”  Shiry responds, acknowledging some of Morozov’s criticism, but stating that regardless of that the “new” media should not be disregarded.  Unfortunately, in his argument, Shirky he seems to repeat some of the old claims focused on what might happen based on very limited evidence.  For example he writes: “It is impossible to know how the next few months in Iran will unfold, but the use of social media has already passed several tests: it has enabled citizens to coordinate with one another better than previously, to broadcast events like Basij violence or the killing of Neda Aga Soltan to the rest of the world, and, by forcing the regime to shut down communications apparatus, the protesters have infected Iran with a kind of technological auto-immune disease.”  However I don’t think he provides much evidential support for those predication, at least at this point.  Having said that, I admit that I don’t know much about the idea of “information cascades” and cannot address their debate on that ground (others seem to know much more about that).

I think one of the points Evgeny is making in this article (as well in some of his other commentary), even if he is not stating this explicitly, is about the dichotomy between the online and physical spaces.  The narrative of digital activism as a catalyst of  “real” political change is heavily based in the assumption that the “digital” realm is substantively different from the “real” and it is possible to change the later through affecting the former.  First, the old-fashioned political apparatus is not as savvy in comprehending this “digital” realm, which supposedly allows the activists new forms of engagement, communication, and mobilization.  Second, whatever emerges in the “digital” world has “real” impact on the “real” world (but rarely the other way around).  The result of this last assumption is a hype about Facebook uprisings and Twitter revolutions.

Evgeny’s skepticism, and to a degree Caly’s reply, highlight that the distinction between the “digital” and the “real” does not hold water as the “digital” is inherently rooted the “real.”  Adoption and diffusion of information technology does not happen in vacuum, but under physical and social constraints that constitute the “realities” on the ground.  The technology is not infused into existing societies and immediately starts processes of change, but it is appropriated, reinvented, and reinterpreted subject to the norms, customs, legal, political, and economic systems of the place and more.  That is not to say that adoption of the technology does not have an impact, but if we are to wear an activist hat and look for efficient ways of utilizing technology for civil activism, particularly under oppressive regimes, we should be blinded by the convenience of the artificial separation between the “digital” and “real.”

For me, the takeaway from this debate is that thinking about the role of political uses of “new” media it is important to keep the big picture in mind.  While those can be useful tools for enhancing the flow of information and potentially empower grassroots activism, the “digital” realm in itself does produce “real” change.  Revolutions, dissent, and political change are very “real” and are conducted through very tangible means.  Thus, while it is important to continue the discussion and the study of the political role of “new” media, the digital tools cannot be viewed as detached from the realities on the ground.

These are my thoughts.  What are yours?

Reading “Delete”

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.

DeleteCoverTelling 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):