17 September 2010

Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: Closing keynote by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

Our two-day conference is coming to a close with a keynote by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger who is soon to be joining the faculty of the Oxford Internet Institute as Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation.

Viktor talked about the theme of his recent book“Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age”(a webcast of this keynote will be available soon on the OII website but you can also listen to a previous talk here). It touches on many of the recent debates about information that has been published on the web in some context and which might suddenly come back to us in a completely different context, e.g. when applying for a job and being confronted with some drunken picture of us obtained from Facebook.

Viktor puts that into a broad perspective, contrasting the two themes of “forgetting” and “remembering”. He convincingly argues how for most of human history, forgetting has been the default. This state of affairs has experienced quite a dramatic change with the advances of the computer technology, data storage and information retrieval technologies available on a global information infrastructure.  Now remembering is the default as most of the information stored digitally is available forever and in multiple places.

What he sees at stake is power because of the permanent threat of our activities are being watched by others – not necessarily now but possibly even in the future – can result in altering our behaviour today. What is more, he says that without forgetting it is hard for us to forgive as we deny us and others the possibility to change.

No matter to what degree you are prepared to follow the argument, the most intriguing question is how the current state of remembering could be changed to forgetting. Viktor discusses a number of ideas that pose no real solution:

  1. privacy rights – don’t go very far in changing actual behaviour
  2. information ecology – the idea to store only as much as necessary
  3. digital abstinence – just not using these digital tools but this is not very practical
  4. full contextualization – store as much information as possible in order to provide necessary context for evaluating the informations from the past
  5. cognitive adjustments – humans have to change in order to learn how to discard the information but this is very difficult
  6. privacy digital rights management – requires the need to create a global infrastructure that would create more threats than solutions

Instead Viktor wants to establish mechanisms that ease forgetting, primarily by making it a little bit more difficult to remember. Ideas include

  • expiration date for information, less in order to technically force deletion but to socially force thinking about forgetting
  • making older information a bit more difficult to retrieve

Whatever the actual tool, the default should be forgetting and to prompt its users to reflect and choose about just how long a certain piece of information should be valid.

Nice closing statement: “Let us remember to forget!


Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Policy and Internet Blog, nor of the Oxford Internet Institute.