"I forgot to remember to forget," Elvis Presley sang in 1955. I know that it was 1955 because I just Googled the title and clicked on the link to the Wikipedia entry for the song. How cool is that? Not long ago, I would have had to actually remember that Elvis recorded the song as part of his monumental Sun Records sessions that year. Then I would have had to flip through a set of histories of blues and country that sit on the shelf behind me. It might have taken five minutes to do what I did in five seconds. I almost don't need my own memory any more. That strikes many of us as a good thing: the costs low, the benefits high. We can be much more efficient and comprehensive now that a teeming collection of documents sits just a few keystrokes away.
But as Viktor Mayer-Schönberger argues convincingly in his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton University Press, 2009), the costs of such powerful collective memory are often higher than we assume. Consider the ordeal of the Vancouver psychotherapist Andrew Feldmar. He tried to pick up a friend at the Seattle-Tacoma airport in August of 2006. But at the U.S. border, an agent Googled his name and found a link to an academic article Feldmar had published in 2001, describing his experiences with LSD while studying with R.D. Laing in the 1960s. Despite having a no criminal record and no suspicious connections in government databases, Feldmar stayed in Canada, barred from entering the United States because he had admitted using a controlled substance illegally.
Before the Web, before Google, that border agent would have had only the standard tools of law enforcement with which to exclude people. But we live in an era of seemingly "perfect"—or at least busy, overwhelming—memory. In fact, Mayer-Schönberger argues, our condition is far from perfect. "Total recall" renders context, time, and distance irrelevant. Something that happened 40 years ago—whether youthful or scholarly indiscretion—still matters and can come back to harm us as if it had happened yesterday.
Delete is one of a number of smart recent books that gently and eruditely warn us of the rising costs and risks of mindlessly diving into new digital environments—without, however, raising apocalyptic fears of the entire project. It stands with Daniel J. Solove's The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (Yale University Press, 2007); Cass R. Sunstein's Republic.com 2.0 (Princeton University Press, 2007); Elizabeth M. Losh's Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistake (MIT Press, 2009); and Jonathan L. Zittrain's essential work, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (Yale University Press, 2008). Unlike anti-Internet screeds like Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30) (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008) or Lee Siegel's Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob (Spiegel & Grau, 2008), these sophisticated and sober books engage sincerely with technologies that they appreciate and defend.
They constitute an important "third wave" of work about the digital environment. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we saw books like Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital (Knopf, 1995) and Howard Rhein-gold's The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Addison-Wesley, 1993) and Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (Perseus, 2002), which idealistically described the transformative powers of digital networks. Then we saw shallow blowback, exemplified by Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason (Pantheon, 2008).
Mayer-Schönberger, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, is a digital enthusiast with a realistic sense of how we might go very wrong by embracing powerful tools before we understand them. For example, he places Feldmar's dilemma within its historical context. When we created textual footprints like Feldmar did, we expected people to behave according to the norms and limitations of the technological environment in which the information was born. For most of human history, forgetting was the default and remembering the challenge.
Finally, he suggests creating laws and norms he calls "information ecology." The government might be required to expunge certain information after a certain date; or legislation could restrict the pace and amount of data collected by public or private entities. Mayer-Schönberger concedes that even that approach is unwieldy because we can't always judge beforehand what information is worth saving or expunging.
All those suggestions would demand significant re-engineering or reimagining of the default habits of our species: to record, retain, and release as much information as possible. They might prevent the next Feldmar or Sotomayor debacle, but that would not help us think better in the new environment. Because we have for centuries struggled against the inertia of forgetting, we can't easily comprehend the momentum of remembering. Mayer-Schönberger acknowledges that.
Fundamentally, he faces a dilemma. If we filter out what we now think is unimportant for the sake of avoiding friction and providing perspective, we might miss something important. Isn't it good that we can find important as well as trivial stuff?
Perhaps we just have to learn to manage wisely how we digest, discuss, and publicly assess the huge archive we are building. We must engender cultural habits that ensure perspective, calm deliberation, and wisdom. That's hard work. Lawyers, legislators, and engineers are no help to us. Philosophers, sociologists, and clergy members would be more appropriate. Ultimately, Mayer-Schönberger asks of us only what any responsible scholar can: that we think more critically about the ecosystem we are building.
Other third-wave authors also remind us that we choose the nature of technologies. They don't choose us. We just happen to choose unwisely with some frequency. Losh cites various forms of electronic government that we're enthusiastic about. More often than not, she says, they fail to empower people to interact with the state, but instead distract and dissolve the public, leaving surveillance as the chief function of electronic government.
For Solove, our grand digital archive and personal instruments of surveillance (like mobile-phone cameras) have made us all vulnerable to ridicule. For Sunstein, the power to filter what one learns about the world reinforces our prejudices and narrows our vision. And Zittrain's book demonstrates that the very openness and customizability of the Internet—what we value so much about it—could be its undoing, as bad actors exploit insecurity and connectivity to spread malicious viruses and spam, thus driving us to closed systems like Facebook and the iPhone that merely simulate the openness of the Internet.
All these works have opened up a realistic vein of critical information studies that outlines the risks and costs within a larger effort to maximize the benefits and boons of the new. We may have a long way to go as a society before we teach ourselves how to handle these powerful new technologies responsibly and civilly. But when we get there, we will look back and thank this emerging group of thinkers who warned us to tread carefully, but to keep treading nonetheless. As Elvis also sang, "Fools Rush In."
By Siva Vaidhyanathan
Source - The chronicle