Prof advocates digital forgetfulness, calls Google 'Soviet'
But can't quite remember why
A Harvard professor has published a paper in which he suggests that revolutions in data storage, search, and other information technologies are creating a "panoptic society", in which everything is being watched and, worse, everything which is recorded is preserved and accessible forever.
Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, associate professor at Harvard's John F Kennedy school of government, says on his webpage that he "holds a bunch of law degrees, including one from Harvard". Prof Mayer-Schoenberger was also a 1991 "Top-5 Software Entrepreneur in Austria".
In his paper Useful Void: The Art of Forgetting in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing, Prof Mayer-Schoenberger mounts a trenchant attack on the modern tendency to record, store, and index everything. Unsurprisingly, he seems to have a particular grump on with the world's favourite search engine.
"In March 2007, Google confirmed that since its inception it had stored every search query every user ever made and every search result she ever clicked on," writes the professor. "Google remembers forever."
Funnily enough, another organisation with a similar policy was the old-school KGB. The Soviet secret policemen would stamp хранить вечно (to be preserved forever) on the dossiers of political prisoners.
"Like the Soviet state, Google does not forget," says Mayer-Schoenberger.
The professor suggests that the human race has "unlearned" or "lost the capacity" to forget things (he struggles desperately to avoid saying that we have forgotten how to). He doesn't really explain why this is a bad thing, but he does note that:
"If whatever we do can be held against us years later, if all our impulsive comments are preserved...our words and actions may be perceived years later and taken out of context...the lack of forgetting may prompt us speak less freely and openly."
Such considerations don't seem to be bothering some folks in the blogosphere, to name just a few hundred thousand. But the professor isn't bothered about mouthy online ranters.
"Regardless of other concerns we may have, it is hard to see how such an unforgetting world could offer us the open society that we are used to today," he says.
Mayer-Schoenberger proposes that the digital world should move "from remembering forever to forgetting over time." Being a software entrepreneur with a bunch of law degrees, it's perhaps unsurprising that he suggests that this be achieved "with a combination of law and software".
The professor sees many benefits in requiring all software to be written so as to forget things rather than remember them.
"Google and other search engines may have to change their practices," he says. "No longer would they be able to store search queries forever."
There's more. "Amazon would have to adjust," he writes, and theorises that customers could "perhaps experience surging accuracy in Amazon's recommendations. After all, whose literary preferences stay constant over years?"
Cookies, mobile phone call records, surveillance-camera footage - all would automatically delete themselves in the medium-to-short term.
The professor seems to yearn for a happier old-school style of information recording. "In the world of post-its and napkins, the default of forgetting...or at least losing...is quite obviously built in," he says wistfully.
"My proposal aims to reintroduce the concept of forgetting over time."
Again, a slight linguistic struggle is required to avoid saying something like "we need to remember how to forget stuff".
The full paper is available here (pdf). Presumably it will be set to delete itself shortly, so get it while you can.
Professor Mayer-Schonberger sums up by reminding us of the critical need for a "fundamental shift from remembering to forgetting that is so central to our society's fundamental values."
And don't you forget it. ®