Book review: “Delete” – by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

On: September 19, 2010
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About Hans Terpstra
I'm a 28 year old student who previously got his BA in filmstudies. The reason I chose to do a MA in new media is because I'm currently in the process of setting up a weblabel with the crew members of RSA, our drum 'n bass group. So indeed, in my spare time I produce electronic music and of course another passion of mine besides that is film.

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Forgetfulness is more seen as a disadvantage than a virtue, since the human brain tends to forget more than remember. Hence humanity has tried over the course of our existence to try and externalize our memories as far as possible. However, in the digital age where literally anything can be stored with little fear of disappearance of the stored information, could it be possible that the virtue of remembrance could turn against us?

Viktor Mayer-SchönbergerAuthor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger thinks so, as he outlines in his new book “Delete”. The book looks at how many big digital information collectors, such as Google, have the power to store anything that a user has ever done in his or her life while being active on their websites. That this is possible is already something to raise an eyebrow over, but what makes it more worrying are the implications of leaving one’s traces of online activity over the years. Mayer-Schönberger outlines therefore that the person forgets of this activity, but the internet possibly never.

So begins an almost prophetic analysis of how ill informed all the hundreds of millions of internet users worldwide actually are of how the remembrance of online activity can ruin someone’s life in the future in multiple ways. The author brings up recent cases of people who had been denied a job or even access to another country by checking details about their past on the internet. Therefore the author pleads that for instance today’s need for socializing on the net (like Facebook) and the complimentary spreading of our personal details can be stored and searched over forever, without the user knowing. Indeed, it seems to sound like a controlled online society where whatever we entrust to the net will be known to sources unknown to us, and therefore striking resemblances are made with dystopian narratives like George Orwell’s Big Brother from his novel “1984”, and Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon, the prison where one is always watched without knowing himself. Of course this might all sound a bit dramatic, but Mayer-Schönberger succeeds in a convincing way of, more than warning, alerting us on our everyday use of the net.

In a constructive manner he first outlines the earlier virtue of humans to remember as much as possible, which led from language to writing, and from the printing press ultimately to our age of digitization where storage capacities of data reach the size it can record literally entire lives of people and be stored in a minimal fashion. Thus is the central issue of the book that forgetting in this day and age has become the exception, and remembering the norm. But its consequences can be devastating, and even though it might sound ironic, according to Mayer-Schönberger humanity needs to learn how to forget again. He sums up many examples of how not only holders of information can use their power to deny or destroy someone’s life by their online activities, but also how for instance our abilities to generalize and form abstract ideas to improve our beings is in danger of an inerasable past that haunts us through the aspects of our life which were digitized. Together with the mostly decontextualized nature of our digitized selves, the author warns for the danger of underdevelopment for our selves and others through how we see the past in a digital form.

“Delete” is haunting, and more a wake up call than an analysis to all the happy, socializing Facebook users, consuming Amazon shoppers and information hungry Google searchers of how the web crystallizes our surfing of the web with the power to shape it long after we have forgotten. After summing up all these dangers, the author goes on to finding any possible solutions which does not seem at all easy. A very important step is spreading awareness of how we can let our online presence fall in the wrong hands when not being careful, and although the author’s ideas for further solutions are sometimes quite radical and maybe impractical on the short term, they do emphasize the earnest of the situation. In the end of the book this will be made very clear to the reader who expected just some scare crowing, and find a dark downside to our abilities to digitize more and more of our life and share it with our digital buddies. If we are to believe in Mayer-Schönberger ‘s severity of his discourse, it makes the digital future seem quite dark for us analog, forgetful humans who put their trust in the digital, always remembering machine.

“Delete” at the Princeton University Press
VMS Web – Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s personal website

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