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Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age Hardcover – October 4, 2009

4.1 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Winner of the 2010 Don K. Price Award for Best Book in Science and Technology Politics, Section on Science, Technology, and Environmental Politics (STEP) by the American Political Science Association

Winner of the 2010 Marshall McLuhan Award for Outstanding Book in Media ecology, Media Ecology Association

"Mayer-Schonberger deserves to be applauded and Delete deserves to be read for making us aware of the timelessness of what we created and for getting us to consider what endless accumulation might portend."--Paul Duguid, Times Literary Supplement

"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."--Adam Keiper, Wall Street Journal

"Mayer-Schönberger raises questions about the power of technology and how it affects our interpretation of time. . . . He draws on a rich body of contemporary psychological theory to argue that both individuals and societies are obliged to rewrite or eliminate elements of the past that would render action in the present impossible."--Fred Turner, Nature

"There is no better source for fostering an informed debate on this issue."--Science

"As its title suggests, Delete is about forgetting, more specifically about the demise of forgetting and the resulting perils. . . . [Mayer-Schonberger] comes up with an interesting solution: expiration dates in electronic files. This would stop the files from existing forever and flooding us and the next generations with gigantic piles of mostly useless or even potentially harmful details. This proposal should not be forgotten as we navigate between the urge to record and immortalise our lives and the need to stay productive and sane."--Yadin Dudai, New Scientist

"Delete is a useful recap of the various methods that are--or could be--applied to dealing with the consequences of information abundance. It also adds a thought-provoking new twist to the literature."--Richard Waters, Financial Times

"After a decade or more of books examining digital technology's consequences for the law, politics and society, we are finally beginning to see interesting books that talk about its effect on the individual. Delete is a highly promising (and often fascinating) first effort to spell out the problems, and to think through how they might be engaged."--Henry Farrell, Times Higher Education

"This book . . . is laid out like an invitation to such a sparring session. There you find the detailed arguments, spread out one by one. Get ready to highlight where you agree, note contradictions and arguments not carried through to their consequential end, and make annotations where you feel a new punch. The session will be worth the effort."--Herbert Burkert, Cyberlaw

"A fascinating book."--Clive Thompson, WIRED Magazine

"A lively, accessible argument . . . that all that stored and shared data is a serious threat to life as we know it."--Jim Willse, Newark Star Ledger

"A fascinating work of social and technological criticism. . . . The book explores the ways various technologies has altered the human relationship with memory, shifting us from a society where the default was to forget (and consequently forgive) to one where it is impossible to avoid the ramifications of a permanent record."--Philip Martin, Arkansas Democrat Gazette

"Mayer-Schönberger convincingly claims that our new status quo, the impossibility of forgetting, is severely misaligned to how the human brain works, and to how individuals and societies function. . . . Can anything be done? Delete is an accessible, thoughtful and alarming attempt to start debate."--Karlin Lillington, Irish Times

"To argue for more forgetting is counter-intuitive to those who value information, history and transparency, but the writer pursues it systematically and thoroughly."--Richard Thwaites, Canberra Times

"Surprising and fascinating. . . . Delete opens a highly useful debate."--Robert Fulford, National Post

"Delete offers many scary examples of how the control of personal information stored in e-memory can fall into the wrong hands. . . . Lucid, eminently readable."--Winifred Gallagher, Globe and Mail

"Delete is one of a number of smart recent books that gently and eruditely warn us of the rising costs and risks of mindlessly diving into new digital environments--without, however, raising apocalyptic fears of the entire project. . . . [Mayer-Schonberger] is a digital enthusiast with a realistic sense of how we might go very wrong by embracing powerful tools before we understand them."--Siva Vaidhyanathan, Chronicle of Higher Education

"In this brief book, Mayer-Schönberger focuses on a unique feature of the digital age: contemporaries have lost the capacity to forget. Many books on privacy frequently mention, but never address in detail, the implications of an almost perfect memory system that digital technology and global networks have brought about. . . . An interesting book, well within the reach of the intelligent reader."--Choice

From the Back Cover

"If the gathering, storage, and processing of information puts us all in the center of a digital panopticon, the failure to forget creates a panopticon crossbred with a time-travel machine. Mayer-Schönberger catalogs the range of social concerns that are arising as technology favors remembering over forgetting, and offers some approaches that might give forgetting a respected place in the digital world. Read this book. Don't forget about forgetting."--David Clark, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"Delete is, ironically, a book you will not forget. It provides a sweeping but well-balanced account of the challenges we face in a world where our digital traces are saved for life. These issues transcend just issues of privacy but go to the heart of how our society and we as individuals function, remember, and learn. I highly recommend this most informative and delightful book."--John Seely Brown, University of Southern California, coauthor of The Social Life of Information

"An erudite and wide-reaching account of the role that forgetting has played in history--and how forgetting became an exception due to digital technology and global networks. Mayer-Schönberger vividly depicts the legal, social, and cultural implications of a world that no longer remembers how to forget. Delete deserves the broadest possible readership."--Paul M. Schwartz, Berkeley School of Law

"In a work of extraordinary breadth and erudition, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger broadens the 'privacy' debate to encompass the dimension of time. His concept of 'digital forgetting' reshapes how sociologists, technologists, and policymakers must define and protect individual autonomy as technology usurps the prerogatives of human memory."--Philip Evans, Boston Consulting Group

"Human society has taken for granted the fact of forgetting. Technology has made us less able to forget, and this change, as Mayer-Schönberger nicely demonstrates, will have a profound effect on society. We as a culture must think carefully and strategically about this incredibly significant problem. Delete will spark a debate we need to have."--Lawrence Lessig, author of Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy

"Delete is a refreshingly philosophical take on the new dilemmas created by extensive digital documentation of our daily lives. Mayer-Schönberger's background in business and technology leads him to a creative and novel response to the challenges generated by persistent storage of data. Delete is a valuable contribution."--Frank Pasquale, Seton Hall Law School


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (October 4, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691138613
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691138619
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.6 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #499,530 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Harry Eagar on November 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover
In this interesting but not always persuasive book, lawyer and policy analyst Viktor Mayer-Schonberger asserts that being able to forget stuff is a requirement for human social evolution.

For anyone who misplaces his spectacles or keys, this may seem surprising, but Mayer-Schonberger makes the case for it in at least some aspects of daily life. He concentrates on old resentments, which may cripple us if brooded over too long.

Maybe. Further, he claims that the digital revolution has made it impossible for us to usefully forget.

He presents a couple of examples: One is a Canadian psychologist who wrote a research paper in a journal mentioning his use of LSD in the '60s. American immigration officials, using Internet search, matched his name and - declaring him to be a dangerous drug user - denied him entrance.

This seems to me less a problem of too much remembering than of too stupid governors, but Mayer-Schonberger does explain in great detail about how much information the combination of digital speed and cheap memory can store. And even create, by data mining.

It doesn't have to be information you put on the Internet, either. Insurance companies routinely get records of most of the prescriptions pharmacies sell, and they can reconstruct much of your medical history - a history that is otherwise legally supposed to be private.

This part is plenty scary, whether there is a problem with not forgetting or not.

Mayer-Schonberger then leads us through various legal and technical fixes to the problem of too much memory too long. The Europeans have taken a hard-line view of privacy. This leads to absurd results: German universities are not allowed to reveal who they have awarded degrees to.
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Format: Hardcover
The first half of the book is dedicated to setting the stage. It is a rather detailed and rich account of the history of the contemporary information environment particularly print, evolution of the memory devices and information storage, and development of information governance institutions (defined in broader terms) such as copyright. While I was aware of some of the stories, many of them were rather new to me. For example, did you know that the subject index, as an alphabetical list of topics covered in a book, was introduced in thirteenth century, but the idea of adding page numbers to the index to ease the actual navigation was added only in the sixteenth century? Quite interesting.

Telling this history Mayer-Schönberger draws a picture of ever growing body of information about us, as individual members of society, and the way we may interact with it, even if in an indirect way. One of his favorite examples is the story of Stacy Snyder who was denied her teaching certificate because of a picture she had posted on MySpace of her dressed as a drunken pirate. The gist of the argument, if I read it correctly, is that while it becomes easier and cheaper to collect and store information about us and our behavior, we, as individuals, are losing more and more control over that information (once you or somebody else posts your picture online, you no longer have control over where it may appear, who may see it, and in what context). He labels it in terms of remembering and forgetting - if in the past it was difficult and costly to remember and easy and cheap to forget, this balance has reversed.

These days it is so easy and cheap to remember that we start losing our ability to forget.
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This book is not going to be to everyone's liking because it divides into two distinct section. In the beginning, the book deals with large, abstract ideas about human history and memory. The author argues that in the analog world forgetting was the norm and remembering was hard because it was difficult to store information in an easily accessible and permanent form. The author's discussion here is fascinating, as he points out how analog information slowly decays as it is copied (think of the hiss in a cassette recording of a previous cassette tape or the blurriness of a mimeograph of a mimeograph), the medium for storage disintegrates over time, and information in these forms is hard to index. By contrast, in the digital realm remembering becomes the default because digital information is easy to back up and cheap to store. In addition, deleting digital information requires effort: As anybody who has let a huge electronic photo library unwittingly build up realizes, it takes time to go through all those photos and decide which ones to keep. Forgetting is no longer effortless.

Mayer-Schonberger then argues that there are serious social problems associated with this change that most people have failed to fully understand. Perhaps his largest concern is that perfect digital memory will freeze how someone is perceived because a perfect record of a person's past deeds or misdeeds will create an illusion that we know the person's character and thereby deny the reality that people change over time. He also believes that perfect memory will overwhelm us with meaningless data that will make it hard to decide how to act.
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