Ask the author: Viktor Mayer-Schonberger
Questions for the author of 'Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age'
Wednesday 07 October 2009
In the digital age, everything we say, do and write is preserved forever. But do we want to leave our virtual footprints all over the web? Aren't there some things we'd rather forget? Last week we published an extract from Viktor Mayer-Schönberger's new book which proposes a radical solution this situation. Here, Viktor responds to questions and comments about the piece put to him by Independent readers.
* A very interesting article, but is it not overambitious to think that we can now get everyone to sign up to certain deletion rules? Has the horse not already bolted?
Perhaps. But I strongly belief that we can shape our future. Digital technology is enormously plastic in that it can be designed in many different ways, based on our preferences. As these preferences change, so will technology. Cars originally did not come with seatbelts, but as preferences (and laws) changed, seatbelts were installed.
* Viktor, you make a fascinating case for a return to the "society of forgetting". But isn't there another aspect to this? In those pre-net days people were wont to write letters, and keep diaries and journals. These would contain waspish and libellous remarks about all sorts of people. They were the equivalent of today's emails and blogs. The great difference is not that they perished in time (they did not) but that were only accessible to the dedicated researcher, eg a biographer. Isn't there is a danger that we will forget more not less than we did in the past if we start creating programmes for automatic deletion? What about tomorrow's historians and biographers in an age where the letter and the diary are endangered species? The problem isn't the retention of information; its the use made of it. Since we cannot expect the human race to be reasonable we need to tighten up on Human Rights legislation. The case of Andrew Feldmar for one is a clear breach of the sort of rights (rights to travel, rights to practise one's vocation) that should be accepted without demur in any civilised society.
- Ian Craine
Ian - thank you for your thoughtful comment. There are actually two concerns: one related to informational power, and one related to the issue of time. You quite eloquently explain the first of this challenge, and I concur with your analysis (although I hasten to add that many diaries do get lost, if not physically then through the lack of easy access to information in them, ie no Googling...) and with your prescription. In the book I make a second argument related to time; I suggest that humans have difficulties putting experiences in temporal perspective, irrespective of whether its their own experiences or somebody else's. This challenge I am afraid we cannot capture with information privacy legislation. In the book I expand this point a quite some length, because it is an important one. I would be interested in your feedback.
* Given constant chatter about information overload, is it not just creating another layer of confusion and difficulty by adding in a new round where we have to decide when all our information should be deleted? What if someone chooses to delete something and changes their mind - will it just be "tough luck" or will there be another back up layer? Also, given the constant wail of conspiracy theories and peoples' suspicion about "big business", how would you gaurantee/placate people over fears that the information has been truly been purged forever and not stored in some back up server to be used by "evil corporations" at a later date?
- R Durkin
Very good questions, indeed. As I argue in my book, much of the success of expiry dates depends on how the user interface for it will be structured. If it is done in an intuitive and ease to grasp fashion, taking up very little time, but enough to let us reflect, I believe it could work. I also suggest that we can change our expiry dates any time before information is actually deleted; I suggest that the paranoid could even have a little tool that reminds us before information is being purged. With respect to "big business" complying with expiry dates: in the book I have a relatively long discussion about this. I suggest that there is a whole spectrum of possible approaches, from a market approach that perhaps societies like the US might adopt to a more legal approach that perhaps European nations might prefer to ensure enforcement,
* When you reference an article written by someone when they were a student, is there not a further difficulty in purging such material given that the writer most likely doesn't own the copyright on that material? Surely it is the publisher's choice on what they get to keep and discard?
- Tom Millard
Yes, that is correct. Now, in the case of Andrew Feldmar he likely did not expect a print article to appear online years later. But whenever more than one party is involved, setting expiration dates requires a modicum of negotiations. In my book I have an entire section devoted to this negotiation process, because most information interactions are dyadic, ie have at least two parties to it.
* The evolution of humanity, especially regarding retention of information, came about as far back as rock art and took a gigantic leap with writing. Is detroying information - forgetting - not akin to the dystopian vision of Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 where books are burnt to discourage critical thinking? In terms of privacy online, it's simple: "Always tell the truth. That way, you don't have to remember what you said." - Mark Twain. If you're living a life that isn't worthy of being held up for public scrutiny (online or otherwise), then you're living a lie. To thine own self be true! Then the concept of "privacy" is alien.
- Elaine SM
Ah, you make a conceptual mistake: forgetting is all about individual choice; in contrast Fahrenheit is about forces choice! If I want to burn a book that I bought I am free to do so; if I want to burn a love letter I received, I am free to do so. Nobody would ever want to force us otherwise I think. Fahrenheit 451 on the other hand burns other people's books. That horrendous and must never be permitted.
* Viktor, I thought this was an intelligent and interesting article. Of course, when the power finally goes down and the lights go out across the world, digital memory won't matter: those servers and systems are subject to human fallibility, just like so much else we believe to be so solid, and which will ultimately melt into air. Perhaps we don't need to be so concerned?
Perhaps. But it is surprising how well functioning these servers are,a nd how well information is actually preserved. Through technology we have taken quite some leaps in most recent years. In chapter three of my book I present some analysis by Google to that matter that (depending on your interpretation) is quite concerning.
* I think that all the stuff about expiry dates is somewhat of an overkill and to some extent missing the point. In most cases surely the problems related to data retention are more concerned with what data is recorded and how it is used, rather than when it is deleted? Should we be seeking legislation that specifies that organisations must make what information they record, and what it is used for easily accessible?
You rightly point to the "power" challenge posed by digital memory. Indeed, for this we need legislation, as well as improved enforcement. But as I explain in the book, digital memory also brings about a second challenge, which is related to time - to our ability to put memories in a temporal perspective, to decide in time, and act in the present rather than remain tethered to our past. It is about accepting that we all evolve and change, and how we ensure that absent of human forgetting we do not turn into an unforgiving world. Perhaps you might enjoy reading that fourth chapter.
* Are you not overexaggerating? Google doesn't know who you are, it knows the IP address of your computer, and, if you're logged into Google Mail, your gmail address. All the data for everyone who uses that computer - or one that in the past or future had the same IP address - is lumped together. So it only knows who you are if you do vanity searches on your real name or address?
- Bob B
Actually, Google (and other search engines) are quite a bit smarter than that, using IP analysis, as well as cookies. Their precision is pretty good, and it is probably no great consolation if they do not know who on the two or three computers in your household searched for something. Moreover, Google is only a tiny bit of the overall problem of digital memory, as I explain in great depth in my book.
* Actually, Tracy Snyder had *NOT* "earned all the credits, passed all the exams and completed her practical training (much of it with honours)". The judge in the case found that she did not understand the material she was teaching, did not control her class, and exhibited unprofessional behaviour IN THE CLASSROOM, so the school was correct in not awarding her certification, since by law she had not met the minimum criteria. The MySpace page came to light *after* Tracy was given an unsatisfactory performance grade, and looks more like something that Tracy (or her lawyer) highlighted to gain public sympathy (it worked!). See SNYDER v. MILLERSVILLE UNIVERSITY et al... (http://docs.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/pennsylvania/paedce/2:2007cv01660/228127/44/). I am not disputing the whole article, just pointing out that the Snyder case does not actually support it.
I believe your facts are incorrect. If you actually read all the court documents, and not just the summary of the summary judgment, you discover that originally the school did pressure Tracy's University to not award her a teacher's certificate citing precisely the photo on her MySpace webpage. They later changed parts of their story - but that does not undo the record. Here remembering (including court documents) is actually helpful and beneficial - a fact that I emphasis in the book.
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is the author of "Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age", Princeton University Press, £18.95
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