Speak, Memory

41SMdmLIpgL._SL500_AA300_ Over at Boston Review, Evgeny Morozov reviews Viktor Mayer-Schonberger's Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age:

In 2006 Stacy Snyder, a 25-year-old student at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, was denied a teaching degree just days before graduation. University officials had discovered a photo of her, captioned “Drunken Pirate,” on MySpace. The photo showed Snyder wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup, and the university accused her of promoting underage drinking. As Viktor Mayer-Schönberger tells the story in his new book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Snyder lost control over the photo when it was indexed by Google and other search engines: “the Internet remembered what Stacy wanted to have forgotten.”

Snyder’s story, and others like it, motivate Delete’s plea for “digital forgetting” (though it turned out that the university had other reasons to deny Snyder her certificate, including poor performance). According to Mayer-Schönberger, we have committed too much information to “external memory,” thus abandoning control over our personal records to “unknown others.” Thanks to this reckless abandonment, these others gain new ways to dictate our behavior. Moreover, as we store more of what we say for posterity, we are likely to become more conservative, to censor ourselves and err on the side of saying nothing.

For people like Snyder, Mayer-Schönberger proposes a creative remedy: enable users to set auto-expiry dates on information. Thus, Snyder’s “drunken pirate” photo could disappear from the Internet in time for her to receive the teaching certificate. Even if a third-party discovered the photo, Snyder could adjust its expiration date and destroy all digital copies—including those cached by search engines—with a few clicks. Were she to appear in someone else’s photo, Snyder would be able to negotiate the proper expiration date for this photo with the photographer.

The details of the proposal are a little implausible, but then, Delete is more a romanticist rebellion against technology than a how-to manual. The focus of the rebellion is technologically enhanced remembering, and Delete is an impassioned call for less of it.