“The virtue of forgetting in the digital age”

Today a candidate who admitted “tweeting offensive comments” was removed from standing as a parliamentary candidate.  Although Stuart MacLennan had removed his twitter account, cached pages and images remained available – and via a twitter storm in wider circulation than the original tweets (he has been in the top 10 “trending topics” in the UK since this morning).

Recently I finished reading Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s Delete: the virtue of forgetting in the digital age (Princeton University Press 2009).  The book explores the dimensions and implications of digital technology with the result encapsulated as “society’s ability to forget has become suspended, replaced by perfect memory.”  Records people, if you haven’t read it yet it’s worth it (but watch out for the weird binding on the BL’s inter-library loan copy which disintegrates on your hands).

Should everyone who self-discloses information lose control over that information forever, and have no say about whether and when the internet forgets this information?  Do we want a future that is forever unforgiving because it is unforgetting?… If we had to worry that any information about ourselves would be remembered for longer than we live, would we still express our views on matters of trivial gossip, share personal experiences, make various political comments, or would we self-censor?  The chilling effect of perfect memory alters our behaviour.

Not yet, in all circumstances, evidently!

The demise of forgetting has consequences much wider and more troubling than a frontal onslaught on how humans have constructed and maintained their reputation over time.  If all our past activities, transgressions or not, are always present, how can we disentangle ourselves from them in our thinking and decision-making?  Might perfect remembering make us as unforgiving to ourselves as to others?

Mayer-Schönberger acknowledges that “in a number of ways an affordable and comprehensive memory is advantageous for us individually and for society”.  Voters in Moray, the parliamentary Labour party (not to mention the other parties!)  may agree or disagree following today’s events.

The book includes an historical survey of the development of means of creating “external memory” – ie recordkeeping.  In the analogue age “the advent of writing did not change the fact that remembering remained constructive, time-consuming and costly”.  It explores the potential consequences of the “the shift from forgetting to remembering” facilitated by the technology of the digital age.

With such an abundance of cheap storage, it is simply no longer economical to even decide whether to remember or forget.  Forgetting – the three seconds it takes to choose – has become too expensive for people to use.

The power and time dimensions are thoughtfully examined, using examples of individuals’ information privacy.

As others gain access to our information (especially when we do not approve or even know of it) we lose power and control.  Because of the accessibility and durability of digital memory, information power not only shifts from the individual to some known transactional party, but to unknown others as well….

Comprehensive digital remembering collapses history, impairing our judgement and our capacity to act in time.  It denies us humans the chance to evolve, develop and learn, leaving us helplessly oscillating between two equally troubling options: a permanent past and an ignorant present.

The book is no mere Luddite, nostalgic rant however.  Mayer-Schönberger accepts that a paradigm shift is taking/has taken place, and is brave enough to offer six potential responses, and some potentially practical solutions.  Believe it or not, this is expiration dates for information – in other words, a kind of retention & disposal schedule.  He acknowledges the requirements to make this work in practice, and the shortcomings of this solution to the problems identified earlier in the book.

Although this is one author (and the bibliography is HUGE) I did find this a convincing read.   It seemed to tie in to one of the themes of this blog post about “defriending” (is the french désamification less harsh?!) which I picked up via twitter today.   Stephanie Booth, “expert in online culture and communication” says “It is true, however, that with an online social network, you keep on dragging your past connections with you unless you defriend.”

And also today I saw the digests of yesterday’s postings to the records-management-uk jiscmail list where a discussion about an event described as an “unconference” turned into another manifestation of the Emperor’s New Clothes vs. Luddites (ok that may be overstating it: can of worms open? – check) “where is the profession going and what’s it all about?” debate.   In the light of Mayer-Schönberger’s proposals, I’d suggest that records people DO indeed “need to engage with the future” – but realistically until there are some practical tools actually developed and implemented – and this means by IT people with the technical skills to get them made – most of us are going to be waiting to see what happens.  I don’t know whether that excites me or depresses me more.


2 thoughts on ““The virtue of forgetting in the digital age”

  1. Pingback: 25 things week 7: google maps & google earth « M Sarah Wickham

  2. Pingback: Privacy, personal data and the web « M Sarah Wickham

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