I went to a talk by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger at the RSA yesterday about his new book – 'Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting In The Digital Age'. The talk focused on how the digital age is one of perfect remembering. A characteristic that empowers, but which can also have unforeseen consequences. Once it's on the web it can be there for good – crawled, cached, traceable, attributable. Google remembers our searches, Facebook remembers, Amazon remembers, places we interact and transact become places where our data is captured, tracked, stored.
Perfect digital remembering has profound implications not only because things which are sometimes best forgotten can be recalled, but because it challenges some very human norms: remembering has always been hard, now its easy; forgetting has always been the biological default, now remembering is the default. And if you've read Nudge, you'll appreciate how powerful defaults can be in affecting human behaviour. Remembering used to be expensive, now it's cheap. The web is undoing our capacity to forget.
Mayer-Schonberger argues that this comes with some inherent dangers. Those with control over historical data will have disporportionate power. Old information can be extracted without the benefit of its contemporary context, and recontextualised in new and inappropriate ways. Perfect remembering is a burden that humans were not made to carry – we could be tethered to a complex past, become lost in detail, unforgiving, overdependent. Human's natural ability to forget has enabled us to make decisions relatively unencumbered by the detail of the past, and to be filled with the possibility of second chances.
So the solution, argues Mayer-Schonberger, is to reintroduce forgetting. And he suggests doing this by allowing a prompted option for an expiration date on data. It may not be a perfect solution, he says, making binary decisions (you either remember it or you forget it) about data when human forgetting is a gradual process, but he hopes to at least change the default and to cause us to reflect and to make a choice. "Let's remember to forget", he says.
It was a challenging presentation, and all the better for it IMHO. I've found a version of it given by Mayer-Schonberger to Google (oh, the irony) last month which I've posted below, so I recommend you take a look. So do I think he's right? Hmmm, well. I think he touches on some issues that we haven't even begun to properly think through yet. And a lot of his concerns seem extremely valid. But I wonder about his solution. And rather than thinking about what we might gain, I found myself reflecting on what we might lose. Natural enough I suppose, but creating new combinations and contexts is one of the foundations of contemporary digital culture. This could dilute. But perhaps I'll reserve final judgement until I've read the book.