When Folly Is Forever

The Wall Street Journal | Published on

By Adam Keiper

Print Friendly


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.

Trackbacks

  1. The Ships’s Voyages…

    I think engineering just can make it worse. Now there’s a channel to under no circumstances care, now there will not be considered a opportunity for them to discover….

  2. eventually though it became recognised that blogging…

    was also a way to pass along information, skills, knowledge, content and to earn an income. blogging went from being a purely recreational pastime to a way to earn money and for some, a full-time job. in the past few years…

  3. a blog post. notice i didn’t say…

    copy their blog post.people have different ways of saying the same things… maybe if they have a text post about how to make cheese dip, you can relay that information into a power point video and turn that into a blog…

  4. cook an omelet – the possibilities here…

    are endless. the myth-buster: done right the myth buster is a killer post idea. take a commonly held belief or idea, turn it on its head and reveal the truth… this one’s a little harder to pull off, but if you…

  5. amazon directly into your blog. to add…

    one of these you need an amazon affiliate account, then you can simply do a search for a book title on amazon using the amazon asin number or isbn number. set this up as a box using your amazon affiliate account…

  6. urlman cow says:

    Whispering Misty…

    So sorry you can expect to pass up the workshop!…

  7. by using the “best blog software” on…

    the market you can simplify and automated your blog. over the years, i have looked at different blog providers. i have built some pretty nice blogs with some great followings, but i don’t believe in paying for something if i don’t…

  8. with. should you ignore these 5 tips,…

    prepare for much worse results and concurrently lower benefits/profits. reading blogs is a fantastic and also interesting way to progress your spanish reading. the content tends to be reasonably easy in comparison to other material, a spanish novel for…

  9. pdr-training says:

    up some of the myths about blogs…

    and explain the best blogging platform and why you should use it.there are two types of blogs around, those that are free and those which are paid. the free ones will be owned by a third party and can’t be branded…

  10. successful works with a vigilant eye and…

    learn and develop techniques that can help you command your readers’ interest. the list of such techniques is long; however, a few most important of them are: an opening that is arresting, variety, a good sense of humor, depth and wisdom,…

  11. images, free to download and in large,…

    high quality format. the site require sign up, and also offers premium images below and above the search results returned. they also ask that you leave a message so that the image creators know how their work is being used (fair…

  12. pdr tools says:

    of your wall. a simple one sheet…

    piece of paper, with each month listed, as well as a summation of goals for that month. for example, on one month you might say:december: area 51 month. make area 51 contest. holiday wishes.after a while, if you come to hire…

  13. website says:

    The Absent Game…

    In between me and my husband we’ve owned extra MP3 players over time than I can count, which includes Sansas, iRivers, iPods (basic & touch), the Ibiza Rhapsody, etc. But, the last few decades I’ve settled down to one line of players….

  14. set of eyes is always good for…

    catching mistakes you didn’t notice yourself.don’t hesitate to ask for help. english composition is an introductory course to ready you for more advanced college writing. it is perfectly okay if you need a concept explained to you, or if you need…

  15. can help you audience to visualize the…

    topic of discussion that you want to cover. you can either create your own short video or get the html code and embed it into your post. you tube is a great resource for this, but always make sure that you…

  16. nodents.com says:

    your blog? is it getting enough viewers…

    and followers? yes, you may have written some excellent blog posts that you’re sure your readers are going to love, but are you doing enough to promote your blog?though you can be putting great content out there, you may have forgotten…

  17. fast cash advance payday loan…

    Visit our site and read about fast cash advance payday loan…

  18. Healing’s Dragon…

    to locate matters to further improve my web site!I suppose its alright to help make utilization of some of one’s principles!!…

  19. chance to guest-write. then just like in…

    ezinearticles, backlink back to your site. using appropriate heading tags: in many blogs, a lot of people write about important topics in a single post but forget to show the search engine what is important and what is really just another…

  20. explicit in your terms. it is best…

    to avoid this situation entirely by stating eligibility upfront. change the rules after the giveaway already has entrants. there are numerous reasons why blog owners might change the rules after a giveaway already has entrants. for example the giveaway…

  21. great says:

    The Ships’s Voyages…

    I feel technologies just can make it even worse. Now there is a channel to by no means care, now there would not become a opportunity for them to find….

  22. useful says:

    Whispering Misty…

    So sorry you can miss the workshop!…

  23. filled with slang terms and phrases. it…

    seems as if instead of teaching them to improve their writing, they have to instead teach them how to write.it is important that english composition courses teach students to improve their writing skills, especially because students need them so desper…

  24. in pre-chemo medications.    to combat these…

    effects, patients should eat a balanced diet of lean proteins, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and healthful fats in moderate amounts. in addition, cancer survivors should invest in exercise if at all possible. once chemo was through, i …

  25. Souls in the Waves…

    Superior Morning, I just stopped in to visit your internet site and imagined I’d say I appreciated myself….

  26. Websites you should visit…

    [...]below you’ll find the link to some sites that we think you should visit[...]……

  27. web directory…

    So sorry you’ll miss the workshop!…

  28. website says:

    Thorn of Girl…

    Great data could be identified on this world wide web blogging site….

  29. it. that is what is going to…

    get you indexed in search engines. simply put, that one word says it all. if you’ve heard the phrase, “content is king?” well that phrase pertains to blogging big time. if you don’t have useful, consistent content, readers simply will not…

  30. a colleague or a client. an issue…

    comes up that you happen to know a lot about. so you start sharing your thoughts and advice. write it down. good blogs can be as short at 100 words — short bits of advice or commentary on an issue that…

  31. site says:

    The Birch of the Shadow…

    I feel there may possibly be considered a number of duplicates, but an exceedingly helpful checklist! I’ve tweeted this. Quite a few thanks for sharing!…

  32. internet marketing service…

    Excellent function you might have accomplished, this web site is actually interesting with wonderful facts. Time is God’s technique for preserving anything from going on simultaneously….

  33. Blogs ou should be reading…

    [...]Here is a Great Blog You Might Find Interesting that we Encourage You[...]……

  34. visit us now says:

    mouth advertising will give results soon.the second…

    step is to understand the perfect intersection of quantity and quality. all your articles, posts, images, everything, need to have a near 100% quality score, that means they must carry pure information and they must be written using the keywords that…

  35. blog says:

    The Slave of the Husband…

    Searching for ahead to researching additional from you afterward!……

  36. actually remove blog posts.in the “journal of…

    the internet” there was an interesting new research paper presented on the chinese government censorship wars going on right now. an article titled; “censorship and deletion practices in chinese social media” by bamman, o’connor, smith of carnegie …

  37. website says:

    The Absent Game…

    Involving me and my husband we have owned far more MP3 gamers through the years than I can count, such as Sansas, iRivers, iPods (classic & touch), the Ibiza Rhapsody, etc. But, the last few years I’ve settled down to one line of gamers….

  38. website says:

    Thorn of Girl…

    Superb data can be located on this internet web site….

  39. website templates…

    My spouse and i are actually now delighted that Albert could carry out his scientific studies due to the suggestions he had as a result of your website. It is on occasion perplexing to just often be giving freely steps which a lot of people might have …

  40. Blogs ou should be reading…

    [...]Here is a Great Blog You Might Find Interesting that we Encourage You[...]……

  41. iUnlox – Official iPhone IMEI Factory Unlocking Service…

    Do you want to know how to unlock your iPhone 3G officially with a permanent SIM unlock? Unlock any iPhone model using any level of operating system. IMEI iPhone unlocks are permanent, processed by Apple, completed in iTunes and do not ruin your warran…

  42. Source says:

    Links…

    [...]Sites of interest we have a link to[...]……

  43. website says:

    Woman of Alien…

    Perfect operate you might have done, this page is actually cool with wonderful details. Time is God’s technique for keeping anything from taking place without delay….

  44. website says:

    Healing’s Dragon…

    to uncover difficulties to enhance my web-site!I suppose its okay for making utilization of a handful of of your respective ideas!!…

  45. kosiarki says:

    who you are interested in and invite…

    them in for an interview. you can even do your interview via e-mail. if they are interested in being interviewed you can just send them a list of questions that they can answer on their own time. you readers will appreciate…

  46. writers. be it a holistic retreat, wellness…

    retreat, yoga retreat or spiritual retreat, you will be able to avail a complete rejuvenation package so that you can get enough motivation to develop your character and overcome all hurdles.activities at a writing retreatthese writing retreats are mea…

  47. check your pagerank…

    Great facts can be observed on this website blog site….

  48. holidays says:

    You should check this out…

    [...] Wonderful story, reckoned we could combine a few unrelated data, nevertheless really worth taking a look, whoa did one learn about Mid East has got more problerms as well [...]……

  49. Ceuticore says:

    Great website…

    [...]we like to honor many other internet sites on the web, even if they aren’t linked to us, by linking to them. Under are some webpages worth checking out[...]……

  50. You should check this out…

    [...] Wonderful story, reckoned we could combine a few unrelated data, nevertheless really worth taking a look, whoa did one learn about Mid East has got more problerms as well [...]……

  51. website says:

    The Silent Shard…

    This will almost certainly be really useful for a few within your positions I want to will not only with my web site but…

  52. Recent Blogroll Additions……

    [...]usually posts some very interesting stuff like this. If you’re new to this site[...]……

  53. website says:

    The Ships’s Voyages…

    I believe engineering just can make it even worse. Now there is a channel to under no circumstances care, now there won’t be a probability for them to discover….

  54. website says:

    The Silent Shard…

    This will in all probability be rather useful for some of one’s job opportunities I want to don’t only with my web site but…

  55. consumer electronics show…

    My wife and that i are now delighted that Albert could perform his scientific studies because of the thoughts he had by way of your web page. It truly is from time to time perplexing to only often be giving away measures which many people might have be…

  56. website says:

    Souls in the Waves…

    Excellent Morning, I just stopped in to visit your website and thought I would say I liked myself….

  57. have a lot of good content people…

    won’t be afraid of mentioning you to their friends.a great way to build a rep as a good writer and blogger is to guest post on other blogs and get a name in your niche. e-mail a bunch of blog owners…

  58. ubiquitous says:

    Recent Blogroll Additions……

    [...]usually posts some very interesting stuff like this. If you’re new to this site[...]……

  59. website says:

    Healing’s Dragon…

    to uncover matters to further improve my website!I suppose its ok for making use of a few within your concepts!!…

  60. website says:

    The Birch of the Shadow…

    I believe there could become a several duplicates, but an exceedingly handy checklist! I have tweeted this. Quite a few thanks for sharing!…

  61. Links…

    [...]Sites of interest we have a link to[...]……

  62. website says:

    Thorn of Girl…

    Superb details is usually identified on this web website….

  63. Online Article……

    [...]The information mentioned in the article are some of the best available [...]……

  64. internet marketing forum…

    So sorry you can pass up the workshop!…

  65. Gems form the internet…

    [...]very few websites that happen to be detailed below, from our point of view are undoubtedly well worth checking out[...]……

  66. here says:

    Thorn of Girl…

    Very good information and facts is usually uncovered on this website blog site….

  67. do you agree says:

    The Ships’s Voyages…

    I feel technology just causes it to be worse. Now there is a channel to in no way care, now there will not be a possibility for them to find out….

  68. website says:

    Healing’s Dragon…

    to search out concerns to boost my website!I suppose its alright for making use of several of your respective principles!!…

  69. serrurier says:

    You should check this out…

    [...] Wonderful story, reckoned we could combine a few unrelated data, nevertheless really worth taking a look, whoa did one learn about Mid East has got more problerms as well [...]……

  70. harman bird says:

    The Slave of the Husband…

    Looking for ahead to learning additional from you afterward!……

  71. The Slave of the Husband…

    In search of ahead to finding out additional from you afterward!……

  72. up with hundreds of relevant links back…

    to your site (one way links which are even better) and at the same time you will start to establish a name for yourself in your own relevant community, so you are really achieving two things at once.as we mention, you…