Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger examines how humanity has used technology to augment human memory over the ages, and how we are now entering a period where technology gives us near-perfect memory through digital archives. He argues that this is an abnormal situation for our societies, and that we ought to be finding ways in which we can facilitate forgetting rather than remembering.

Generally the book is a good read and the history of external memory — going from ancient libraries to today’s massive archives of email — is interesting but I took issue with two instances where digital memory caused problems for people.

The first case is of Stacy Snyder, a 25 year old mother of two from Pennsylvania who was denied a teaching certificate after Millersville University authorities discovered a photo of her entitled ‘Drunken Pirate’ — wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup — on her MySpace page. Snyder was accused of encouraging underage drinking, and the authorities claimed that her behaviour was unprofessional and could either offend or encourage her students if they visited her page. You can see the photo and read more about the case here.

The second case is of Andrew Feldmar, a Canadian psychotherapist who was barred from entering the US as he had done many times before after a border guard discovered an article Feldmar had written for the interdisciplinary journal Janus Head in which Feldmar mentioned that he had researched LSD during the ’60s. You can read the original article here and coverage of his being barred from the US here.

Mayer-Schönberger suggests that both of these are examples of how modern-day digital memory can have a negative impact on the individual, implying that if we had in place a system that allowed people to ‘forget’ parts of their digital past (removing them from the view of others) then both Snyder and Feldmar would have been ok. But from my perspective as a liberal European, both of these examples strike me more as examples of American Puritanism than anything else.

Digital forgetting wouldn’t have helped Snyder because the photo was current, or at least from the recent past. What caused Snyder’s problem was that the authorities she worked for believed that she could be a corrupting influence simply by being seen drinking; absurd in a society where drinking alcohol is legal and can be widely seen in advertising, television, film and at social and sporting events. Trying to hide this from the underage (which in America is a staggering 21 years old) just makes it more appealing, not less.

Nor would digital forgetting have helped Feldmar because his comments were from an academic article for a publically-available journal. Certainly Feldmar couldn’t have anticipated widespread internet usage when he wrote his article but when the journal archives were made available online it only became a problem when he bumped up against an overzealous border guard empowered by post-9/11 stricter immigration legislation.

Feldmar fell victim to a one-size-fits-all immigration policy that defines a drug addict as one who has taken any illegal drugs at any time, and again must therefore be considered to be a corrupting influence that should be banned from US society unless they consent to costly annual reviews. Snyder was unfortunate enough to have conservative superiors that believed the young could somehow be protected from the depraved adult world if only they could hide it from them.

Perhaps Snyder would have her teaching certificate if she hadn’t posted her photo online, and perhaps people today should take note of the Feldmar case and start thinking about future decades, but is that a healthy attitude? Mayer-Schönberger references the Panopticon, a model prison designed to make the prisoner unaware of when they were being observed, and would thus be less likely to commit transgressions due to fear of observation. In Delete it is at least acknowledged that this would be a terrible model to apply to society but I don’t believe that deletion is a healthy solution either.

Mayer-Schönberger proposes various technical solutions but they generally involve DRM systems (unpopular amongst consumers and irrelevant to anyone determined to bypass it) or a populace committed to limiting, on a per-transaction basis, how long their personal details are retained by any other individual or organisation, all of which strike me as unlikely to take root outside a minority of privacy advocates due to the added cost in time and mental effort and the low visibility of any benefit.

It is more likely to me that society will just adapt to having all this extra information around. This clip from American author Dan Savage is worth listening to, in which he talks about the moral outrage caused in some circles by ‘sexting’, and compares it to the moral outrage over smoking pot. He points out it used to be that if you were outed as a pot smoker it was a career-ender, but then over just two decades it’s become far less of an issue, citing various Presidents and their various admissions or non-denials on the subject. He suggests that in a similar space of time, people’s youthful transgressions published online forever won’t be an issue because in the future, everyone will have them and everyone will be in the same boat; that it is essentially a generational problem that will solve itself.

This strikes me as a healthier attitude to take.