Delete. The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age
by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2009
256 pp. Trade, $24.95 / £16.95; e-Book, $24.95
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
Written by a former faculty member of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and now director of the Information and Innovation Policy Research Centre at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, this book analyzes the dangers of perfect remembering in the digital age. It analyzes the history of external memory and the increasing possibility of “complete” and “infinite” remembering through digital techniques and a culture that makes not only storage but also retrieval and access of the past easy, cheap, and almost inescapable.
This book, however, does not provide a technical approach of this phenomenon. It also offers a cultural and legal analysis, for it tackles the less positive side effects of the growing impossibility of forgetting. Mayer-Schönberger’s analysis is cultural to the extent that it foregrounds the necessity, not only of remembering, but also of forgetting. Referring to the paradigmatic case of the Borges character, Funes, incapable of forgetting, he stresses the inherent link between the impossibility of forgetting on the hand and conservatism and lack of efficiency on the other hand. The analysis is as well legal, since Mayer-Schönberger also gives examples of the painful and often absurd consequences of the remembering of far-gone events, images, and thoughts that have been forgotten by everyone except by the databases that are more and more ruling our lives. The book starts and ends, for instance, with the terrible story of a young woman who was refused her teacher’s degree due to the presence of a “funny picture” on her MySpace web site.
Delete is a strongly political book, that goes against the grain of much cyber-utopian writing on digital remembering, and it makes a strong and valuable contribution to the debates on privacy rights and, more generally, on the relationships between citizen and state. Written in a very accessible language and targeting a very broad audience, it is a good example of what modern public debate can be. The author gives also an excellent overview of the responses that can be given to the threat of an almost dictatorial control by software and the people that are able of using (and controlling?) it. Nevertheless, these responses are weak: “digital abstinence” for instance, i.e. to decision to keep certain information out of the internet, may sound interesting, but is not always an option; “full contextualization” of data is not a real possibility either; and even more problematic is “cognitive adjustment”, i.e. a changing of mentality in regard to the status of digital data. Therefore Mayer-Schönberger proposes a solution that he considers simpler and more efficient, namely the introduction of expiration dates on information.
One has to admire the author’s initiative to put on the table a dramatically important yet still underestimated problem: the growing impossibility to get freed of the past, even if this past has been long forgotten or even if all those concerned would gladly accept to forget it. Yet the solution that he proposes does not convince––first, because it seems at odds with the contemporary awareness of the dangers of forgetting (the author does not really discuss the hot issue of crimes against humanity and the claim that certain things may “never” be forgotten: how to trace a line between what deserves to be forgotten and what should be kept in memory?); second, because even a narrow interpretation of expiration dates (6 months? 3 years? a decade?) will not prevent the abuses and scandals that the digital impossibility of forgetting has been causing. The real scandal is not (only) that a student having passed her exams is refused her degree because of a so-called compromising (but in fact absolutely innocent) picture, but that people can rely on laws that enable him to motivate, justify, and impose such absurd decisions. Many things are going wrong with our use and abuse of digital storage and retrieval, yet much more goes wrong with our way of defining what is or is not against the law. This kind of more fundamental questions is not raised in this book, which therefore misses (part of) its target.