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Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Deletelooks at the surprising phenomenon of perfect remembering in the digital age, and reveals why we must reintroduce our capacity to forget. Digital technology empowers us as never before, yet it has unforeseen consequences as well. Potentially humiliating content on Facebook is enshrined in cyberspace for future employers to see. Google remembers everything we've searched for and when. The digital realm remembers what is sometimes better forgotten, and this has profound implications for us all.

    InDelete, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger traces the important role that forgetting has played throughout human history, from the ability to make sound decisions unencumbered by the past to the possibility of second chances. The written word made it possible for humans to remember across generations and time, yet now digital technology and global networks are overriding our natural ability to forget--the past is ever present, ready to be called up at the click of a mouse. Mayer-Schönberger examines the technology that's facilitating the end of forgetting--digitization, cheap storage and easy retrieval, global access, and increasingly powerful software--and describes the dangers of everlasting digital memory, whether it's outdated information taken out of context or compromising photos the Web won't let us forget. He explains why information privacy rights and other fixes can't help us, and proposes an ingeniously simple solution--expiration dates on information--that may.

    Deleteis an eye-opening book that will help us remember how to forget in the digital age.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3845-5
    Subjects: Political Science, Law, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. CHAPTER I Failing to Forget the ‶Drunken Pirateʺ
    (pp. 1-15)

    Stacy Snyder wanted to be a teacher. By spring of 2006, the 25-year-old single mother had completed her coursework and was looking forward to her future career. Then her dream died. Summoned by university officials, she was told she would not be a teacher, although she had earned all the credits, passed all the exams, completed her practical training—many with honors. She was denied her certificate, she was told, because her behavior was unbecoming of a teacher. Her behavior? An online photo showed her in costume wearing a pirate’s hat and drinking from a plastic cup. Stacy Snyder had...

  5. CHAPTER II The Role of Remembering and the Importance of Forgetting
    (pp. 16-49)

    We all know the feeling. We meet someone at a party whose name we can’t recall. At the ATM, we try desperately to remember the PIN of a bankcard we haven’t used in a while. We wander through a parking garage in search for our car, because we can’t remember where exactly we left it. I know because I have been scolding myself in such situations for my feeble remembering skills. We may not like it, but forgetting is something very human. It is part of how our mind works. Or do you actually remember in detail what you talked...

  6. CHAPTER III The Demise of Forgetting—and Its Drivers
    (pp. 50-91)

    Gordon Bell has been called “the Frank Lloyd Wright of computers.”¹ He spearheaded the development of Digital Equipment’s legendary PDP and VAX computer series, shaped the National Science Foundation’s work on networking computers across the United States—what would become the Internet—and in the mid-1990s, right when he hit retirement age, he joined Microsoft Research. Bell is very much the smart elderly engineer, with a likeable smile, boundless energy, an avuncular kindness, and thoughtful insights. The only odd thing about him is the little black box the size of a cigarette pack that hangs around his neck. It is...

  7. CHAPTER IV Of Power and Time—Consequences of the Demise of Forgetting
    (pp. 92-127)

    Humans yearn to remember, although they mostly forget. To lighten this biological limitation, we have developed tools—from books to videos—that function as external memory for us. These tools have proved tremendously helpful, as they have made remembering easier and accessible to many more people than ever before. But until a few decades ago, these tools did not unsettle the balance between remembering and forgetting: to remember was the exception; to forget, the default.

    In the digital age, this balance has been altered fundamentally. Digitization, the theoretical underpinning of the digital revolution, has led to cheap digital storage, easy...

  8. CHAPTER V Potential Responses
    (pp. 128-168)

    If digital remembering may cause such profound consequences, how are we to react? In this chapter, I detail six possible responses aimed at preventing or mitigating the challenges of power and time posed by digital memory. The six responses differ, not just in substance but also to the extent we know whether they work or not. Two of them have been implemented in quite a number of societies. For them, we have relatively good (if qualitative) data on their effectiveness. The remaining ones have been proposed, but they have not been widely used. Therefore, my evaluation of them will have...

  9. CHAPTER VI Reintroducing Forgetting
    (pp. 169-195)

    If we want to address the challenges of digital remembering, we may have to tackle the very shift that led to the demise of forgetting: where we used to forget over time, we now have the capacity to remember perfectly. Retaining information in our digital memories has become the default of how we operate, how we interact with our technical tools, and with each other. Today, remembering is so widespread I have argued, because it no longer requires a conscientious act, a tiny bit of time, energy, or money that we need to expend to commit information to digital memory....

  10. CHAPTER VII Conclusions
    (pp. 196-200)

    As humans we do not travel ignorantly through time. With our capacity to remember, we are able to compare, to learn, and to experience time as change. Equally important is our ability to forget, to unburden ourselves from the shackles of our past, and to live in the present. For millennia, the relationship between remembering and forgetting remained clear. Remembering was hard and costly, and humans had to choose deliberately what to remember. The default was to forget. In the digital age, in what is perhaps the most fundamental change for humans since our humble beginnings, that balance of remembering...

  11. Afterword to the Paperback Edition
    (pp. 201-210)

    It was supposed to be routine. The radio host asked excellent questions, and so did callers, but after weeks of talking about the importance of forgetting, and years of researching, I had my answers ready. Then a woman called in. When still a teenager, she said, she had broken the law, gotten caught, been convicted, and spent time in prison. She had made a terrible mistake. But once released, she moved to a different city and put her life in order. She fell in love, had kids, found work, furnished her home. God helped her, she said, by giving her...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 211-230)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 231-244)
  14. Index
    (pp. 245-249)