The book reviewed here is ‘Delete’ by Victor Mayer-Schonberger and narrated by Dennis Holland. Holland narrates at a moderate pace and with an upbeat style. In the book, Mayer-Schonberger argues that the digital age has created a permanent store of memories which now poses a challenge to society. At several points he discusses individual memory in more detail, for instance outlining some of Baddeley’s ideas on how memory works. He compares the permanence of digital memory with the impermanence of biological memory and with the impermanence of cultural memory through the ages due to the absence of large-scale methods of storing memories. The large scale methods of storage later appear in the form of books and I was intrigued to hear of the output of scribes in the early middle ages in contrast to the capabilities of the printing press. Mayer-Schonberger argues that the permanence of memory in the digital world has arrived suddenly:
‘A world without forgetting is difficult to predict‘
He provides the audience with some case examples showing how these memories have been problematic but argues speculatively that people will doubt their own memories if presented with ‘perfect’ digital memories of their life, many of which they themselves will have ‘forgotten’. Mayer-Schonberger also argues that our memories are impermanent because we ‘become’ someone different with time, learning from our mistakes. I thought these were perhaps existential themes and it was interesting to see them being considered in relation to the use of information technology.
The essence of Mayer-Schonberger’s argument is that we should have some degree of control over our personal information and he suggests digital rights management as a possible solution which he then further expands upon. He even suggests that such information can be monetised and I was somewhat bemused to think that the concepts of some of the existential philosophers might form the basis for a digital economy.
Going off at a slight tangent, Mayer-Schonberger’s arguments made me consider Jung’s writings on archetypes. If as Jung suggested, we have a collective unconscious that is stored within culture then how would this be affected by the advent of our present age of digital permanence? Would such archetypes, if they exist, be affected by the abundance of cultural memories stored without decay in our digital world? Would they become distilled within the ever expanding cultural heritage that is available on demand, where society is in the process of creating subculture upon subculture?
It would be interesting to see the results of general population-based surveys to see if people would want to manage their personal information in this way and perhaps a small pilot study to see if it is feasible and is capable of producing the expected outcomes. Even if all of this pointed in the right direction there would still be the matter of making it work economically which is obviously an important test of any technology.
Mayer-Schonberger has tackled an important issue in the digital age and it will be interesting to see how things develop in this area.
Viktor Mayer-Schonberger. Delete (Unabridged). Audible Inc. Narrated by Dennis Holland. 2009
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