Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age – By Viktor Mayer-Schönberger


Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age . Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press . xi + 237 pages. ISBN 9780691138619 , $24.95 cloth . Viktor Mayer-Schönberger . 2009 .

This book is arguably one of the most important books to be published in its year. The subject of the book—the prevalence of digital memory—has been completely transforming our lives, whether we like it or not, and whether we are even aware of it. If we believe that human beings are entitled to live in a democratic society where dialog and debate should be the right and duty of each citizen without fear of retaliation, and that individuals should be allowed to express themselves without every action being recorded for use in future judgment by others or by “the system,” then our society is fast changing for the worse. This is the argument put forward by Mayer-Schönberger.

Mayer-Schönberger's main effort is fourfold. First, he strives to show how throughout history, forgetting was the default. Secondly, he aims to show how, with the advent of digital memory and its rapid decrease in price, remembering has become the 21st century default. He then ponders the issues and concerns that this digital full remembering (which is different from a true full memory) brings with it to human development and the maintenance of a just society. Lastly, he offers solutions.

Succinctly stated, Mayer-Schönberger contends that we are biologically inclined, and throughout human history were forced, to forget most of our experiences. Indeed, one of humanity's eternal struggles has been the fight against forgetting and being forgotten. However, the changing costs of external digital memory, as well as the specificities of operating system and utility software, have dramatically altered this battle. We now have to actively work and spend considerable effort to forget and delete information. For example, most readers of this review are unaware of what personal information their own browser, search engine, or fashionable smart phone remembers, and shares with other applications and interested third parties. Few readers know how, or even that an option exists to delete this sometimes sensitive and embarrassing information. Information that is generated as part of our daily life, data we do not even view as worth remembering, is now meticulously preserved. And once preserved, this information can be accessed and analyzed, not by everyone, but by disparate organizations and individuals across society. Mayer-Schönberger contends that these actors who control our information have immense power over us and our decisions.

But while the book makes a heroic attempt to cover every aspect of memory, forgetting, and their history, it is in its very scope that the book's main faults can be found. Ultimately, Mayer-Schönberger overreaches; he fails to define or systematically develop a coherent argument which can be analyzed, developed, and put to general use. This avoidance of definition and the overuse of extreme examples are a disservice to his essay. First, they obscure the book's main points. Second, the extremity of the examples might allow readers to wrongly assume that most of us might be saved from the consequences of full memory. At points, one even wonders what purpose some of the examples serve apart from sharing an interesting story. More worryingly, the overuse of examples prevents Mayer-Schönberger from systematically following his own numerous arguments to their logical end. They unnecessarily confuse the book's novel arguments about digital memory with rather old fights over privacy and the control of individuals over access and use of personal data.

For example, should I worry that Microsoft (through its search engine Bing), Google, and Apple are gathering an unbelievable amount of information about everything I was ever interested in or happened to look at or purchase via the Internet? Or is it that they have done this without my consent (and most of the time even without my knowledge)? Or should I worry that this data is now stored forever? Or should I worry about its use by profit-oriented third parties? Should we worry about digital snooping? The eternal preservation of the snooping results? Or, maybe most worrisome is the tendency of governments to demand access to this immense personal data? Or is this truly just a question of gathering data in amounts that have never been gathered before, and then preserving it for eternity, and merging and analyzing it using advanced computers and software?

We should worry about all of these issues; but Mayer-Schönberger never asks which one is an issue of privacy, which is a problem of memory, and which is a problem of access. This leaves the reader without a framework, and the author's own analysis of solutions is less than satisfactory.

It is here that one would hope that Mayer-Schönberger and other scholars will continue boldly further down this path of analysis. There are three key sets of questions that subsequent research should pursue. First, what are the differences between the prevalence of digital memory and privacy issues? And how should one systematically think about them in regards to social and political change? Secondly, is it truly a problem of memory or is it equally a problem of retrieval? As the author himself suggests, the act of remembering is always an interpretive act, for this reason the act of building omnipresent retrieval gateways is a profoundly political act; should we indeed remember our life the Google or Bing way? This issue is of an ever growing importance, since the filters of knowledge and being heard on the Internet are far from being equal, as the excellent book by Mathew Hindsman, The Myth of the Digital Democracy (Princeton, 2008), proves. Last is the issue of access, and here I do not refer to the basic question of who has access to what information, but rather the basic question of: is it truly a difference in remembering or in access to the gathered data?

Even with its weaknesses, Mayer-Schönberger's Delete is a wonderful work. If you care about modern society, you should read this book; if you are a scholar, you must.