Internet, Politics, Policy (VIII). Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: Delete. The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

Notes from the Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: An Impact Assessment conference, organized by the Oxford Internet Institute, and held at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, UK, on September 16-17, 2010. More notes on this event: ipp2010.

Delete. The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

(Talk based on Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s book Delete. The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.)

What once has been put on the Web, it is never again forgotten: people is losing jobs, being banned from entering countries, etc. for having put content online that has afterwards been found by third parties, and these third parties judged the content and acted in consequence. Even if the content was long out-dated, even if the content had been removed, even if the content was addressed to other people than the ones that finally accessed it.

For ages, the problem was remembering and the norm was forgetting. Many activities had precisely remembering as their goal: language, storytelling, painting, etc. And neither the book or the phone made a change by making remembering less hard or less time consuming.

But digital technologies have.

And many institutions backed their power on the capability to remember: through scribes, the printing press, the panopticon, etc.

And it is not only about power, but about time, decision and how some decisions were made at a specific time. Seen from a distance, a decision made long ago might not be easy to understand in present time. Not being able to forget, we lose the ability to generalize and look instead at the detail (taken from Borges). We might them turn from an unforgetting to an unforgiving society.

What can be done?

Privacy rights. We can empower citizens to manage their own privacy. But what we find is that people do not care.

Information ecology. We can just use/store the necessary amount of information strictly needed to perform a task. But the problem is that we cannot foresee the future and know exactly what we will be needing or not.

Digital abstinence. That is, not sharing anything on Facebook, etc. But is that realistic?

Full contextualization. Instead of abstinence, we should put all the information we have so that a reliable context can be built around any piece of information given. It is proposal of a full transparent society, but is it feasible? is it affordable in matters of time?

Cognitive adjustment. Adjust our society, our individual processing of how we evaluate information. But history tells that forcing the human being to change just won’t work, brain rewiring is not something than can be easily done. And, indeed, what would be the appropriate mechanism to do so?

Privacy DRM. Instead of changing humans, changing technology. To ensure that only those that we have given permission to see our content can actually access it. But, then, we have to build a surveillance system that watches our moves and watches that these (registered) moves are not used for wrong purposes. That is a little bit of a contradiction.

Why not reintroducing forgetting?

Expiration date of information. Once the date expires, the content disappears. This would be the digital equivalent of oral communication. It would also link content to a specific time, keeping the sense of context with it.

The Digital Shoebox in the Attic. A way of keeping content alive, but dormant. It has to be explicitly retrieved, thus avoiding serendipity.

Forgetting should be the default, not remembering.


Q: Who defines what we have to forget? A: This is a difficult question. For instance, in a transaction, who sets the expiration date? the customer or the seller? But sometimes there might be benefits in this. e.g. Amazon knows all the books I bought in the last 10 years, but does not know what interests me now: Amazon would be happy to know, and I would have an incentive on updating that information (by setting expiration dates) so that Amazon could do better suggestions to me.

Sandra González-Bailon: wouldn’t it be better to forgive and not to forget? A: That would be nice, but it seems that, psychologically, forgiving and forgetting are very related. Forgiving is thinking that something of the past is not relevant any more. But recalling it again and again makes forgiveness more difficult.

Q: wouldn’t full transparency help in levelling information (i.e. power) imbalances in the world? A: It might work in some cases, but not all cases are about overcoming power imbalances: there are many many personal cases were full transparency would be harmful and not a matter of power.

Mike Jensen: making politicians accountable requires an active memory. We want protective forgetting, but don’t we want some protective remembering for some individuals? A: This is not about an ignorant society that does not remember anything. In ancient times, when remembering was expensive, people remembered what was valuable. So let’s try to shift the default from remembering to forgetting, make remembering the exception, and concentrate in remembering what is worth.

Q: isn’t putting an expiration date an active act of remembering (and not forgetting)? wouldn’t be recalling that something is about to expire recalling the fact itself and then remembering it again (and again)? A: It seems that humans cannot only automatically forget, but also actively forget. So, if I wish to actively forget something, the recalling won’t be activated by the expiration date.

Q: Wouldn’t be negotiation costs of agreeing in an expiration date very high? A: Technology can help in this, and enable information capturing devices with software that talks to other devices (e.g. my e-ID card, with several levels of recording permission) and acknowledges a specific expiration date.

More information

Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: An Impact Assessment (2010)