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Book Review: Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger

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As an only child, whose parents were also only children, I value memories as something rare and fragile. Sometimes a doctor asks me something about my childhood medical history and I simply don’t know – and there’s no one alive who is likely to remember the answer to the question. So I’m inclined to value memory.

But after reading Viktor Mayer-Schonberger’s The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, I’m now seriously inclined to also value the reverse. There are, from my youth, as is I think the case with most people, plenty of incidents that can still produce an inward cringe when I’m remind of them – and no doubt there were many more similar events over which my brain has drawn a merciful veil.

But I didn’t grow up in the internet age – I was well into my 20s before I had my first website (and I was a fairly early adopter of the web), into my late 30s before I had my first blog. Enough sense, hopefully, to avoid putting anything up that will cause rampant future embarrassment. (Although come to think of it I wonder what I might have posted on some early, internet archived email lists around about the early 90s…)

Mayer-Schonberger begins Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age with the story of a 25-year-old American, Stacey Snyder, who was denied a licence to be a teacher after an official found a photo of her on Facebook taken at a party and captioned “drunken pirate”. It is a type of newspaper story now so common as to be almost cliché – the unwise email sent around the world, the Facebook “my job is boring “ status that gets someone fired.

But in considering the value of forgetting in the internet age, Delete goes much further, into much darker, murkier territory. I was astonished to read that (without telling their customers) the American post office when it receives a “change of address” mail redirect, passes this information on to third parties, mostly mail order companies, so they can also redirect their mail. Mayer-Schonberger continues: “More troubling perhaps is the practice of two thirds of all health insurance companies in the United States to screen health insurance applicants by digitally assessing their prescription histories. Most applicants and even many insurance brokers are unaware of such invasive practices made possible by digital accessibility.”

That accessibility Mayer-Schonberger identifies as the first difference about information in the digital age, compared to earlier storage systems. The second is durability: “If somebody watches you surf the Web, after a few days that person will have forgotten what you searched for and when. Google will not: its memory of one’s search request is much more durable, as well as more accurate.”

And finally, and perhaps most frightening, is the comprehensiveness of web information. From a range of sources, from your Google searches to your Amazon purchase, your social networking profiles to your blog, commercial providers can, and increasingly are, building up an individual profile that they’ll sell to anyone for a small sum. Warning of the dangers of this comprehensive approach, Mayer-Schonberger cites the case of a Canadian academic, barred from entering the US forever because a border guard in a Google search found a 1960s article in an academic journal in which he made reference to taking LSD.

As Mayer-Schonberger explains, this has serious political consequences:

”Will our children be outspoken in online equivalents of school newspapers if they fear their blunt words might hurt their future career? Will we protest against corporate greed or environmental destruction if we worry that these corporations may in some distant future refuse to do business with us? In democracies, individuals are both citizens and consumers … Would [firms] still transact with us, offer us the best price, perhaps even employ us? Just the thought that they might not, may constrain our willingness to act as consumers, let along citizens.”

And even individual remembering may be damaging. Mayer-Schonberger notes how rare individuals who remember pretty well every detail of their lives find it hard to make decisions, hard not to go back and wonder how things might have turned out differently if they had taken a different path. By contrast, human memory is in fact finally physiologically tuned to remember things important to us, things useful to us, but to allow most of the details of our lives to disappear forever from view.

It’s that biological model that Mayer-Schonberger turns to when seeking a solution to the problem he has identified. While your computer can’t sift your hard drive to identify “the important stuff”, and allow the rest to quietly die, you can when creating a file or a piece of information, have a pretty good sense of how long it is likely to be important or useful.

He suggests that every file or piece of information – whether it be a photo or an online purchase, come with one extra essential box to tick, recording how long we think the information should be preserved. You might decide you don't mind a search engine keeping your searches for a week, in case you want to return to a recent result, and important family photos marked "forever", with this book review, perhaps, falling somewhere in between. Will it still be relevant in 20 years? Maybe I'd at least like the option of whether or not to keep it.

This is clearly no great technical challenge, but it may be a challenge to our mental frameworks. Because our memory is so frail, so fragile, we're used to treating data as valuable, worth preserving almost no matter what. Mayer-Schonberger identifies a serious problem, presents a powerful argument and a reasonable solution. Still, a great deal more individual intrusion may be needed before it is an argument societies are likely to accept.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.