Review: Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

I was reading Delete by Victor Mayer-Schonberger when I recalled a movie with Robin Williams called The Final Cut, a forgettable pseudo-scifi movie about cameras being implanted in people that records everything they see, which Williams has to edit in order to cut out all the bad parts after people die so that they could preserve all their nice memories for those in mourning; this movie, which I had forgotten about until I read Mayer-Schonberger's book on the difficulties (and virtues) of forgetting in a digital age.

I remember the movie only because the book mentions a guy in Microsoft Research--Gordon Bell--who actually is trying to preserve all his memories in a way similar to the movie, albeit with slightly less sophistication; he doesn't actually record every single second, but he does record all his conversations, preserves all his emails and keeps photos of everyone he meets. This is only possible because digital storage has become so much more affordable and portable now than it was just a few decades ago. However, it's possible that more of us are heading in this direction, whether we choose to or not, because remembering is becoming the default.

The book tackles two interrelated issues: privacy and memories. Specifically, it argues that more and more of our private lives are being documented and transmitted--knowingly or unknowingly--by emerging technologies. There are cases when people whose distant or recent pasts have come back to haunt them, which forces us to question whether the ease of remembering has come at the cost of being unable to prevent our more embarrassing moments from leaking out in unexpected and uncontrollable ways.

Surprisingly, the book didn't address what I thought it would address, which is the trend for children, adolescents (and parents of these children and adolescents) to post videos on sites like YouTube and Vimeo, at an age before these individuals can make a decision for themselves whether they want to be so publicly known; or cases where embarrassing, private videos become Internet memes (e.g., the Star Wars kid); or instances where videos of people walking into fountains while texting on their phone makes it into the media without the person's consent. I expected to book to address the potential consequences of all these changing forms of communication. But the book had slightly different topics in mind.

I have problems with two of his fundamental assumptions:

  1. For most of human history, Mayer-Schonberger argues, forgetting has been the default. Lots of things have been lost to us, as individuals and as cultures, simply because there wasn't a medium available that could preserve memories over long spans of time and that was also easily searchable, until the printing press and affordable paper-making came along. As such, he suggests that we should reintroduce forgetting into our digital lives. I would argue that forgetting has been the default because people didn't have any choice. As he notes himself, storage media was expensive and cumbersome and people had been illiterate for most of human history. When given the choice, people had tried their best to inscribe their memories on all sorts of things--cave walls, tapestries, paintings, stone tablets, papyrus, scrolls, and so on. People wanted to remember.
  2. In order to protect ourselves from our past, he suggests the use of expiration dates on our media productions; for example, if you take a photo, you can tag it much the same way photos are already tagged with date, time and location nowadays. An expiration date tag would indicate when you want that photo to disappear forever from the record. Mayer-Schonberger suggests using something like a 0 to 100 scale (which makes me wonder: If I wanted to tag "0" to anything, why would I agree to take the photo in the first place? Wouldn't it be easier and safer not to take the photo?) My main question with this idea is that he assumes we would know the appropriate expiration date of any given piece of information (blog post, photo, video, audio, etc.) the moment we create it, without considering that, perhaps, these information can be useful in the future. I don't know, for example, whether something I've written would be important to me (or anyone) 25 years from now, and if I set a 5 year expiration date on it, I would never get to find out. Mayer-Schonberger is warning about the future, but he assumes a future where technologies never fail.

At times, Mayer-Schonberger takes his arguments a step too far. He returns to two cases of people who are unable to forget their past: AJ, someone who is mentally unable to forget the past and remembers it in all its minute details; and Funes, a fictional character with the same condition from a Borges short story. Arguably, these are really extreme cases, neither of which has to do with digital remembering. We're not quite there yet when it comes to remembering everything in excruciating detail, and it still takes a fair amount of sifting and filtering before we can find what we want; and at times we do lose the past, as anyone whose lost a hard drive can attest.

He can also be inconsistent with his arguments. For example, first he writes that digital memories can force us back into a past that we had forgotten, using an (again fictional) example of Jane, who hasn't met a friend for a long time and, while looking through their emails, comes across a prior quarrel they had:

Then she comes across a very different e-mail of hers; it's short and hurtful, where she accuses her old friend of blatant deception. Jane can't help but read it, then clicks forward. His angry response appears...[T]he idea that John, good old John, blatantly deceived her is suddently at the forefront of her mind...Without Jane's wanting to, digital memory revived an event she had failed to recall, muddying her positive emotions towards John. Now she's having difficulties erasing that e-mail exchange from her mind. (p. 113-114)

Then later on, he points out that our memories are capable of adjusting to new experiences, even if confronted with a contradicting evidence from the past that has been preserved digital record:

Even if we are confronted with an exact record of a past event we were involved in, it would be impossible for us to block out the changes in our minds that have happened since: the knowledge gained (or lost), the values changed, preferences adjusted, emotions felt. (p. 167)

The book does provide you with some things to think about. Mayer-Schonberger is great when he's bringing together prior research and articles, such as the fact that Google remembers everything that everyone has ever searched, which is somewhat alarming, even if it is intended to help them improve search for everyone. He also gives some interesting insights into the history of communication technologies and how they have changed over the years. His arguments become flimsy when he goes off and creates hypotheticals because anyone can create a hypothetical scenario and make it support or critique any position.

Ultimately, the question we have to ask is the one posed by another movie--Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Is it better to remember everything, if it means remembering the good as well as the bad, the suffering, and the episodes of frustration; or is it better to forget, if it means also forgetting the laughter, the victories, and the unexpected moments of beauty? On some level it is a trade-off and it could be that the balance is shifting more towards remembering than forgetting. But, at this point, I think it's better to have the choice to remember.