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Is data overload killing off human initiative?

Time to add a delete button to the internet

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Book Review Delete – The Virtue of Forgetting in a Digital Age is one of those high premise pseudo-techy works that appeals to the chattering classes – not least because it beguiles them with a false sense of "doing technology".

As modern technology has enhanced our ability to remember everything, no matter how inconsequential, the time has come for us to start finding ways to forget.

The book, by Professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, has struck a populist nerve, with appearances on Radio 4, at the Harvard Law School, and even stimulating debate at the Conservative Technology Forum. Insofar as it pushes an important issue up the public policy agenda, it has its uses.

The starting point for Delete is an issue with which regular readers are likely to be all too familiar: the sometimes devastating effect that information provided in one context can have when accessed under wholly different conditions. This is the down side to our new "digital memory".

Two cases are provided. In the first – digital memory acting across spatial boundaries – a would-be teacher finds her career dashed before it has even begun, as university authorities are alerted to drunken pictures of her dressed as a pirate on MySpace. Such pictures reflected "conduct unbecoming" – and she was therefore deemed unsuitable for teaching.

For an instance of digital memory acting over time, the book cites a university professor, denied entry to the United States on the basis of an article written some ten years previously, in which he talks of trying LSD nearly 40 years before that.

The book develops some not wholly fanciful concerns on the back of these examples. The damage, it suggests, goes deeper than a few individual cases: "Forgetting plays a central role in human decision-making. It allows us to act in time not shackled by past events." Or future fears.

Forgetting gives us second chances. Even more importantly, the ability to live in the present, without fear that every single action might be lifted up and scrutinised out of context at some long distant future date, provides us with freedom to act.

Digital memory changes the balance of power between those governed and those with power – the state and large corporations. The most likely response to this power shift, it argues, is a closeness – a caution – akin to that which became second nature to the citizens of Eastern Europe during the cold war.

Delete advances a number of theoretical solutions – from the Luddite and wholly impractical "data abstinence" through to a growth in digital rights and an "information ecology". None of these, it concludes, are very helpful.

That is why society needs seriously to consider the invention of a formal "delete" facility for data now out on the internet and held in databases. This approach might gain some consumer purchase: might even find its way into law, as at least the Conservatives have expressed some interest in giving individuals far greater formal control over their data, even after they have passed it into the hands of a third party. However, the likelihood of government being prepared to go along with such an approach does feel fanciful.

The issues put forward are important, but perhaps far less complex than this book makes them out to be. There is much padding: two whole chapters – or nearly half the text - detail the evolution of remembering, from the working of the brain and the invention of language, through to modern computer technology.

It is hard to shake the feeling that this premise would have made a very good thesis – but is overlong as a book. Nonetheless, some readers may find themselves getting a copy for Christmas – and a few may even have a tech-obsessed nephew, for whom this would make a pleasant Boxing day read. ®

Bootnote

Delete was written by Professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, director of the information and innovation policy research centre at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. It is published by Princeton University Press, and is available now: price £16.95.

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