Memory in the Digital Age

For as long as we can collectively remember, humans have struggled with the problem of memory. Its unreliability was compounded by the dishonesty and disingenuousness of the mind, in both its conscious and unconscious forms. But a new book - Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age - argues that, in the course of a generation, the problem of memory has been flipped on its head. (Watch a presentation by the author.)

Image via Mixy/Flickr

Image via Mixy/Flickr

According to author Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, the problem of memory is simply that there is too much of it. “The overabundance of cheap storage on hard disks means that it is no longer economical to even decide whether to remember or forget,” writes Stuart Jeffries in a Guardian profile of the academic. Our digital fingerprints are eternal - and more efficiently retrieved and collated by commercial entities than they could ever be by ourselves. Once that tweet has gone out, as many have discovered to their regret, there is no retrieving it - or one’s reputation.

The book speculates that one adverse consequence of memory’s digital overload might well be that no-one says anything controversial anymore. “Will our children be outspoken in online equivalents of school newspapers if they fear their blunt words might hurt their future career?” asks the author. “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?”

Web writer and academic Jonathan Zittrain has a radical idea designed to give people a second chance. He calls it reputation bankruptcy, and some are calling it the next evolution in social media.

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