The second half of the book “Delete” by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger extends on the benefits of digital remembering, as well as proposing solutions to “re-introduce forgetting”. The main solution he explains is use of expiration dates, which he then describes the advantages and disadvantages of it in detail.

Chapter 4, titled “Of power and time- consequences of the demise of forgetting”, outlined the author’s main concerns of shifting to absolute digital memory storage, potentially down to the minute of someone’s life. He warns mainly that forgetting is essential to “acting rationally”, and without forgetting, we’ll lose our ability to “generalise and conceptualise” and therefore act accordingly. He uses an example of two old friends who haven’t talked to each other in years, but want to meet up again. They both at present, feel positively towards each other. However, one of them finds old emails and text message exchanges, and is reminded of an old argument, and this causes them to no longer want to meet their old friend. The author uses this example to illustrate relatably, how forgetting can help with interaction and relationships with others, regardless of whether they will be of benefit to us in the present moment. Without the digital memory, the person was generalising their relationship positively, and this made them want to take the rational route of meeting up with their old friend again, however digital memory swayed them to believe that this wasn’t the correct decision.

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As the author puts it, “the fourth danger is that when confronted with digital memory that conflicts with our human recollection of events”. As accurate as the information from the memory may be, we instinctively want to also trust our own memory because we experienced what was recorded. For example, at the moment the 2020 American Presidential election is taking place, and right now we will probably feel as if the results are quite close; in a couple years, we may be thinking that the election was actually a clear win instead of close as the digital memory of the internet and social media will record. Of course, this would also depend on who you were voting for in the first place, if you could vote, so all perceptions and memory of this election will be different for every person in a couple years, even though we may all feel the same presently.  This could lead to argument and disagreement down the road, which could definitely be used by future candidates. 

However, the author also acknowledges the benefits of digital memory, such as tracking societal behavior and using data to predict industry developments, or use of digital notes to record illnesses and medical history. Most notably, the author uses the example of eBay changing so that you can only rate sellers positively instead of having the option to rate negatively; “eBay’s trademark had been to remember reputation, it has now introduced the deliberate forgetting of bad experiences”. This then could conflict with human memory, and silences negative opinions. Of course this is a fairly small scale example, but if a similar trend moved to other industries such as food, supermarkets or institutions, then it could make itself a new societal norm. 

On the social impact and ethical issue of privacy, the author says on the section about power that “when the first generation of digital memory spread throughout the United States in the 1960s, academics like Alan Westin and Arthur Miller rose against what they terms an “assault on privacy””. This then links onto the author’s next point of accessibility in which “one way we believe we control the use of our personal information is to decide whether to share it based on recipient and circumstances”. If we can control who can access what data about us and when, then we think that our privacy is safe, and our data is secure. This was obviously not Westin and Miller considered when digital memories were taking flight, pointing out that it’s possible that the author’s own interpretation of introducing forgetting again, in terms of privacy issues, could be meaningless, as he outlines his main solution in later chapters. 

 

In chapter 5, the author outlines 5 responses to the problems of digital memory he explains in chapter 4. I combine the 2nd and 3rd because in my opinion, they’re just too similar in that the 3rd is just explaining the practicalities and IT systems involved in the 2nd response.

Digital abstinence: 1/10

As his label for it implies, digital abstinence explains how through raising awareness of the problems of digital remembering, individuals will choose to not share their information and expose it to eternal memory. This response is based completely on the individual, so in my opinion whilst it’s good in concept in that it’s an idealistic expectation, it’s very unrealistic. Relying on the individual level, in a world where digital memory is already becoming slowly implemented through social media and such, makes it extremely hard to revert back. And the implications of this could also be detrimental to societal development as well, for example the progress of science has peaked in the last 20 years, mainly due to technology and the ability to record and remember things effortlessly.

Information privacy rights/digital privacy rights infrastructure: 2/10

Fundamentally, this response is about making laws to ensure that intellectual property of an individual is under that individual’s control at all times. Whilst this is legislation, and thus means it may give a greater chance of not falling into the traps of digital memory, it raises the question of if you move countries to where they don’t have these laws, then what? Do you still maintain control over your information? Does it mean that any information you share in the new country won’t be in your control? Then there is of course the problem of corruption anyway…

Cognitive adjustment: 2/10

This response suggests that we instead change our mindset and naturally develop coping mechanisms to deal with the problems of digital remembering. The author specifically states that this response is free from the need to make new laws in order to enforce it, but at the same time he doesn’t exactly say how he thinks is the best way of carrying out this response. “By rewiring the way we think, evaluate and decide, humans tackle digital rememering through adaptation, the very notion that is such a fundamental building block of life in general. This will resynchronize us with change- natures’ most basic idea”. With this response, there is the issue of changing in the first place, and getting the whole world to do so at the same rate and simultaneously. The author does express concern for the exact period of time this adaptation will take place over,  but doesn’t offer solutions to ensure that the process is as painless as possible.

Information ecology: 6/10

Information ecology is concerned with ensuring that after a certain period of time, information collected will be destroyed and also limits the amount of information being collected in the first place. In my opinion, this is the most realistic option, and also links best to the author’s proposed solution to solve the problems of digital remembering. He uses the example of after a certain amount of time, DNA collected from a crime scene won’t be able to be used again or recalled. The only issues I can see from this response, is that of varying government laws, and exactly how they will destroy the information after use, as well as ensure that governments abide to not collecting more information than needed in the first place.

Perfect contextualisation: 4/10

Often times, information collected or shared on social media can easily be taken out of context, turning a fond memory into something better off forgotten. Thus, perfect contextualisation aims to allow “complete transparency” in interactions and information collected. However, the author also critiques that transparency won’t be completely good; if we all know that we can or are being watched at all times, we feel trapped. This is also the fundamental argument in favour of privacy and why it’s important. Perfect contextualisation also required “sustained attention” and access to even ore digital records than needed before, which requires an step forward in technology first of all, but is overall unfeasible in the world where human attention span is rapidly decreasing. Even if given the context of a social media post, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the reader wants to and needs to know about the original context.

 

Solution?

The author then uses chapter 6 for outlining his main idea of introducing expiration dates for information that is collected in order to maintain controlled levels of forgetting and remembering.

He begins by using a simple example of setting expiration dates on cookies, used when you enter a website to “enhance” user experience. The author proposes that for each cookie, the user may be able to set a date in which the cookie will be retained to, if at all. There would also be an option to by default commit to digital memory. He explains that this would be beneficial in ridding the world of the binary of remembering vs forgetting- providing a good midpoint that mimics natural human habits. There would even be warnings close to the set expiration date, in case the user chooses to change it.

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For example, the author says that google implemented a similar expiration date system on search queries, only enabling them to store and remember searches for a limited amount of time of 24 months. This then led to other search engines such as yahoo to offer even shorter expiration dates; not that this is necessarily a bad thing anyway.

Similar expiration dates could also be set up for other IT systems, such implementing one for monitoring purchases on online shopping sites. This would benefit the user by enabling them to filter out one off purchases easily, whilst also allowing for interests and hobbies to fade out naturally. This would also instill a sense of self-awareness in the user, as they can get a better idea of how long they will be interested in a certain topic.

However, the author also points the flaws of this solution when it comes to information that is shared amongst 2 or more people. He then suggests that each party can individually choose an expiration date, or by equivalence, a website can give the user a certain range of expiration dates to choose from.

In conclusion, chapter 7 is used for the author’s last thoughts in which he says that he hopes this will “open discussion” about the importance of forgetting in our digital present and future.

 

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