Mayer-Schonberg's account of the perils of instant digital recall may be slight, but it isn't wrong in its conclusions about the creation of a present that we can never switch off. There is a deeper question here that he footles about with on exactly why we would want to arrange ourselves in such a way as to never have a forgotten moment, at least not anything recorded digitally. With the expansion of devices to do such a thing, we might all be headed for the fate of data-bore Gordon Bell but for the reality that he shows exactly how dull life can be by recording it in such anodyne detail. The implications for social arrangements are potentially filled with the sort of conflicts of interest Mayer-Schonberger so dutifully records.
Won't we eventually come to the realization that we aren't all saints? Mayer-Schonberger might also be taken to task for exactly the same fault: his argument about art and culture is astonishingly ahistoric, but it does not mean that some long cherished ideas about the public space are not in danger. It is this that brings us to a different conclusion: given the initial freedom of cyberspace has now been colonised by the corporates, won't the real effect of this behaviour be to eliminate the individual from the Internet except as a corporate actor?
A few months ago, a student who went a bit overboard in a nightclub in Cardiff ended up having her activities posted on the Internet. Such behaviour by student isn't of course new, but the difference now is that footage of bad behaviour can be filmed and distributed to a scale unimaginable just a decade ago.
A problem for this poor student is that their name will be permanently linked on the Internet to what she did one night out with her friends, accessible to anyone, future in-laws and employers (a few career options will be probably out of bounds). The book highlights such problems and predicts its social impact.
It raises the next big pressing issue about personal data, how old information can be used against us.
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If you use the internet, or send emails, or live life outside of a sealed cupboard you need to read this. It shows how the things we do become permanent (and can come back to 'bite' us) and things that we could delete we don't because that takes time and storage is cheaper than time!
I saw a reference to this recently, and it reminded me that I must say something about it. In Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger discusses the fact that, for the first time in history, the balance between remembering and forgetting has been altered. Our default state is to forget stuff, but now we, through our technology, can remember everything.
As he says,
A society that never forgets, may stop forgiving. That unfortunate photo of yourself, or that article you wrote whilst a student, may come back to haunt you years, even decades, later.
Such a situation leads people to self-censor, not just in the here and now, but with one eye on the future. It reminds me of a science fiction story I read in which crime was effectively eradicated because the police used cameras that could go back in time to record actual events instead of people's recollections of them.
Mayer-Schönberger's suggestion is that we should remember to forget. Technology can help us by prompting us to specify expiration dates for the data we store.
I'm not sure that will ever happen, and I suspect that what will save us in the end is te fact that as technology changes it becomes harder to access things created with older technology. But it's a fascinating hypothesis.
When I first heard about this book, I had a look at some of the reviews that are floating around the web. While some seem to wholeheartedly agree with the argument, others take a quite critical stance. At any rate, the book seems to have hit a nerve and stirred up a lot of debate. I cannot think of a better recommendation.
Mayer-Schoenberger is a former Harvard-Professor and long-time information policy expert. His basic argument is that, in the digital age, the default has changed from forgetting to remembering. More and more information is stored for eternity, made accessible through digital infrastructure like search engines and databases.
Some of the consequences he outlines are more or less the ones you would expect: privacy, panopticon, etc. Others struck me as quite fascinating. For example, he tells the story of a woman who leafs through old e-mails. She discovers an exchange with a friend of hers, full of mutual accusations and betrayals. And although this had happened many years ago and the argument had long been settled, she felt the old anger creeping up again. Mayer-Schoenberger uses this little scene to ask a number of important questions: does perfect memory make it harder for us to change over time? Does remembering make us less forgiving as a society?
He then goes on to discuss the pros and cons of a number of possible responses. His own solution is to advocate a "revival of forgetting". One of his - quite creative! - ideas is to call for "expiration dates" for data -- dates after which a data set will not be available anymore. While not a magic bullet, this may definitely be a way of raising awareness and engaging users with the issues.
So until somebody comes up with a "neuraliser" to blank our brains as demonstrated by the Men In Black, this book will remain an essential contribution to the debate. Thought-provoking, timely and important. Five Stars.
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