In our digital era we have a large number of technologic devices at our disposal, that allow us to store informations about ourselves, and fulfills our greets ambition as human beings: a perfect, or rather quasi-perfect memory. This being consequentially followed by a deep turnover between the mechanisms of memory and oblivion: in analog media era, the action of forgetting is a natural biological process; to memorize, on the other hand, was more difficult and had certain costs. In contemporary digital society remembrance is a default operation, while forgetting has instead become a longer and more difficult process.
Which might be the repercussions of this consistent turnover on human beings and on our society? Can the capability of keeping all the data concerning ourselves be harmful for us and if so, in which ways? And which are, in the end, the ways to follow that might be considered as solutions? These are the issues that Viktor Mayer Schönberger, head of the Information and Innovation Policy Research Centre at the National University of Singapore, which was founded with the intention of exploring and understanding information’s role within markets and society, especially for what concerns our innovation skills , exposes and scrutinizes in his last book Delete The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton University Press, 2009).
All this are to be considered as matters of primary interest for our society, them being deeply related to the privacy issue and what’s more them being pushing us towards a increased awareness in the use we make of the Internet as of the large number of digital devices, a nowadays such consistent presence in our lives.
In the interview that Professor Mayer Schömberg has kindly released, we went over the key points of his book, delving in to each one.
Simona Fiore: My first question is about the title of the book: why Forgetting is considered a Virtue in the Digital Age?
Viktor Mayer Schönberger: Forgetting has been a fundamental human quality for millennia. It has always performed important functions: it let’s us put aside events in the past that are no longer relevant for what we are in the present; it let’s us generalize and abstract, to see the forest rather than just trees; as human beings to change and evolve. And forgetting is easy for us it is built into our brains, it’s biological and just happens. Unfortunately, in the digital age we now have digital tools available that capture and keep accessible information forever and at very low cost. In essence, although we humans still forget, the digital tools we use daily do not forget anymore. Our past remains fixed through the power of Google search.
Simona Fiore: At the beginning of your book you write about the case of AJ, a 41 year old woman in California, who does not have the biological gift of forgetting. Can you tell me the story and why is it that a nearly perfect memory turns up to be so troubling for her?
Viktor Mayer Schönberger: AJ is an individual, who has difficulties forgetting. In fact, she can remember what happened in her life rather precisely to the point of recalling each day 20, 30 years ago: when she got up, what was on TV, who called her, etc. Rather than being happy about such immense recall, AJ is quite troubled by it. All of the wrong decisions she took in her past are always present, to the point of limiting her ability to decide and act in the present. Often she seems to see only trees, not the forest.
Simona Fiore: Why remembering is the default and forgetting has become much more expensive in the digital age?
Viktor Mayer Schönberger: This is due to technical evolution: digitization made it possible to use standard tools and gadgets to store vastly different kinds of information: images, video, sound, text, data. Plummeting storage costs, powerful software for easy information retrieval, and the Internet as a worldwide access infrastructure make digital information today so much easier to capture and keep available. At the same token, forgetting is costly: one needs to make a conscious decision to forget, to delete, to erase while storing is the default, happens automatically.
Simona Fiore: In chapter IV of your book you write about the impact of the digital rememberance on “power” and “time”. How have they both been affected??
Viktor Mayer Schönberger: Power: Information often translates into power. If others have the ability to store and access information about us that we ourselves have long forgotten, their informational power will increase. Already some have suggested that the Internet stifles open debate through its panoptic quality: namely that we have to assume that what we say and do on the Internet is watched by the entire world, and somebody may take offence. Through comprehensive digital storage, we may find ourselves in a temporal panopticon, in which we do not only have to assume that all of our actions and conversations online are constantly being watched by the rest of the world, but that they will be preserved for ever and we will be held responsible for all of our past and present utterances in the future. This could push many people towards self-censorship, stiffing and impoverishing public debate.
Time: We have a biological way to deal with time: we forget what is no longer relevant. Hence, as humans we never had to learn how to deliberately disregard some past events because they are no longer relevant to the present, to who we are today. With comprehensive digital memory we have unlearned this important capacity to forget, and thus are now overloaded in our decision making with too many facts of the past, which we have great difficulties in evaluating and putting in perspective. We may end up like AJ, or the young Funes in Borges’ short story: captured in a web of details, unable to act in time, to generalize, to abstract, and to see the forest and not just the trees.
Simona Fiore: One of the problems digital memory causes is the lack of control on information. This issue is strictly related to the privacy rights, as you underline in chapter V: how might the Information Privacy Rights constitute a solution for this problem and which do you think are its pros and cons?
Viktor Mayer Schönberger: Information Privacy Rights can be a useful tool to protect us from the «power» challenge I outlined above, but not from the «time» challenge. Moreover, information privacy rights require laws (which are not in place in the US, although the EU has strong privacy rights) and individuals willing to go to court to enforce their rights. Unfortunately very, very few individuals are willing to do that and this results in strong information privacy rights in theory, and weak information privacy rights in practice
Simona Fiore: The main challenge we are facing in the digital age is the persistence of information, thank to the web 2.0 and the opportunity it gives us to share and to retrieve information permanently: what solution to this matter could there be, in your opinion?
Viktor Mayer Schönberger: I believe we need to learn again how to forget, how to get rid of information that is no longer relevant, and how to create opportunities for us individuals and for society to evolve, to change, and to grow over time, rather than be hampered by an ever present past.
There are multiple ways to reintroduce forgetting. One is through expiration dates for information: we would be free to set them however we wanted to (and change them whenever we want), but once an expiration date is reached, the information is deleted from our hard disks and storage devices. If we had to enter an expiration date for all information we store irrespective of how far in the future the expiration date is we would over time understand and come to appreciate that most information not timeless, but linked to a particular time and place, to a context, and thus may lose its relevance over time. Expiration dates help us make that connection, and give us the choice we need. They shift the default: from remembering to forgetting. This means we are free to remember whatever we want on our digital archives, but it will take a tiny amount of effort for us to do so: we need to set a defined expiration date, while the default is to forget.
Another possibility is to have something like «digital rusting» – mechanisms that make it a little more time-consuming to retrieve older information that is less relevant today. So for example if we would have to wait for 10 second rather than 0.1 second to retrieve emails from five years ago, we would not so easily «stumble» over these old and largely irrelevant pieces of information accidentally. It is the digital equivalent of the shoebox of photographs in the attic: they are still there, but retrieving them is not costless.
Simona Fiore: In the book you state that: “This trend… transfers power from the surveyed to the surveyors, as information experts have eloquently pointed out”: could you give me an explanation of this?
Viktor Mayer Schönberger: Yes, if information is power, those that have information about us also have power. Until now this power was largely ephemeral it would vanish quickly because keeping and retaining information was costly. Only for the most important political opponents in the Soviet Union, the KGB would stamp «never to be forgotten» on their files and keep all of the incriminating documents forever. Today, many institutions and organizations, including governments can store all the information they have about us for years and decades, combining them, and knowing about us what we have long forgotten. Thus the power shifts.
Simona Fiore: You write that: “But more so than atoms, information bits are malleable – as I mentioned, they can easily be changed, and thus history altered. What happens when people realize that past can no longer be trusted?” What do you think would the consequences be, if we’d begin to putting trust only on the digital memory?
Viktor Mayer Schönberger: If we begin to trust digital memory more so than our own biological memory, if we «outsource» remembering, then our memory depends on the authenticity and accessibility of our digital archives of the Google index, the Flickr photo stream and our Facebook account. We assume digital information is authentic, but it can be easily changed in fact more easily,and more perfectly than analog information. So as we outsource remembering, we also empower those that control the digital archives.
Simona Fiore: What’s the main difference between the distortion affecting information recovered from the digital memory and the one given by other media?
Viktor Mayer Schönberger: Two major differences: first, distortions and falsifications of analog media are easier to detect by experts, they usually leave some trace. Falsifying digital information is both easy and traceless. Second, n the analog world many sources had independent analog information. Today, we concentrate and centralize digital information storage, especially through the Internet. If Google drops something from its index, for two out of three people that information has vanished. If all of us use Flickr to share photos, Flickr has a lot of power it is concentrating it in one place, making falsifications easier and the results more comprehensive.
Simona Fiore: How can our society make people be more critical and aware towards technology and web? Does “education” embodies the keyword?
Viktor Mayer Schönberger: Education is the most important solution. And I think I say that in the book as well: it is a cornerstone of any strategy to make us critical and aware again as individuals and a society. In fact, expiration dates are nothing but a tool for mass education: constant reminders that information is not timeless, and constant reminders that we have a choice and that without us choosing well others may have informational power over us.
Simona Fiore: Do you think that in the future we might be able to reach the right balance between forgetting and remembering?
Viktor Mayer Schönberger: I am an eternal optimist. So yes, I do hope so. But we need to appreciate the importance of forgetting and have an informed debate in our society about the need of forgetting and remembering right now, and not when it is already too late. That’s why I wrote Delete.