When Folly Is Forever

Published October 22, 2009

The Wall Street Journal

Historians, accustomed to rummaging through document-stuffed archives, are now worrying about the future of the past. Our lives, they note, are ever more digitized: family joys and sorrows, work-place successes and setbacks, government directives and debates, are increasingly composed and conveyed digitally. The seeming ephemerality of these records—their formats may become obsolete or they may otherwise blip out of existence—has led to fears of a “digital dark age.” Archivists and librarians have looked for strategies to preserve digital public records, with mixed success. As futurist Stewart Brand put it a few years ago: “There is still nothing in the digital world like acid-free paper.”

But maybe the historians have it backward. In Delete, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger argues that we should be less troubled by the fleetingness of our digital records than by the way they can linger. You may scoff—especially if you have ever lost valuable files on an irreparably damaged hard drive—but Mr. Mayer-Schönberger, a professor at Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, believes that we are not losing enough of our digital data. We are, he says, “failing to forget.”

A simple economic idea underlies his argument. Until relatively recently, forgetting was “easier and cheaper than remembering.” Before widespread literacy, lastingly recording knowledge and experience required the painstaking labor of educated specialists, from ancient scribes to medieval monks. Well into modernity, the material costs of preserving knowledge remained high. Paper alone, Mr. Mayer-Schönberger notes, accounted for two-thirds of the price of Diderot's Encyclopédie. Forgetting comes easily when remembrance is costly.
In the digital era, by contrast, the cost of saving information has fallen so far that the state of affairs has flipped. “Remembering has become the norm, and forgetting the exception,” Mr. Mayer-Schönberger observes. In fact, “the economics of storage have made forgetting brutally expensive.” Think of pictures taken with a digital camera: It is now often cheaper to save thousands of pictures indefinitely than to sift through them all and eliminate the duds.
So forgetting, the default mode for millennia, today requires effort and expense. “With the help of digital tools we—individually and as a society—have begun to unlearn forgetting,” Mr. Mayer-Schönberger says. We have erased “from our daily practices one of the most fundamental behavioral mechanisms of humankind.”
The implications are uncertain but potentially troubling. “Will our children be outspoken in online equivalents of school newspapers if they fear their blunt words might hurt their future career?” Mr. Mayer-Schönberger asks. “Will we protest against corporate greed or environmental destruction if we worry that these corporations may in some distant future refuse doing business with us?” We once could remake our lives; we could improve ourselves and even seek redemption by shedding our past. Mr. Mayer-Schönberger fears the oppressive weight of a past always with us.
Unfortunately, Mr. Mayer-Schönberger tries to bring too much under the umbrella of unforgetting, causing him to mix his cultural insights with the unrelated problems of information privacy or simple bad judgment. In particular, he keeps reverting to two real-life examples that do not serve his argument well.
Andrew Feldmar, a Canadian psychotherapist, has been forbidden entry into the U.S. since 2006, when a U.S. border guard searched for his name online and found a journal article in which he described his experiences with LSD in the 1960s. “It was a time in his life that was long past,” Mr. Mayer-Schönberger writes, “an offense that he thought had long been forgotten by society as irrelevant to the person he had become.” But Mr. Feldmar's LSD trips would have remained forgotten if he had not written about them at great length as recently as 2001. Setting aside the reasonableness of the border-crossing rules, the Feldmar case has less to do with digital memory than with Mr. Feldmar's own attempts to keep the past alive.
The other example involves Stacy Snyder, a teacher-in-training who was denied certification because, as Mr. Mayer-Schönberger has it, her supervisors were alerted to a photo of her on her MySpace page that suggested drunkenness. But the author's version of events is incomplete: The judge who ruled on the case in December, after Ms. Snyder sued for redress, described several problems that called into question her competence and performance, not just the unprofessional picture.
But even taking Mr. Mayer-Schönberger's account at face value, Ms. Snyder's story is not about remembering too well. It is rather a cautionary tale—triggered by a posting on a social-network site—about blurring public and private realms. The author fears that “once we realize that information can reach anyone, we'll err on the side of caution, and if in doubt censor ourselves rather than risk incalculable damage.”
But what's so bad about a little self-censorship? It may prove safer for those of us who leave no moment unphotographed, no heartbreak or health scare unblogged, and no thought un-tweeted. And it may also help reawaken us to the quiet pleasures of private life.
Mr. Mayer-Schönberger's solution to the problem of digital unforgetting is a complicated scheme of data “expiration dates.” He prefers a legal and technical approach in part because “getting people to constrain what they desire to share is difficult.” But the present era of extreme exhibitionism is still young. It is not too much to hope that digital remembrance will help us recall the forgotten virtues of restraint and responsibility, of modesty and prudence.
— Adam Keiper is the editor of The New Atlantis and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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