The unfortunate side effect of information technology: it doesn’t forget, even when our society does.
Question: What problems does so-called "perfect digital memory" pose?
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: It seems to me there are two kinds of problems that comprehensive digital memory poses to us. The first one, I’d like to label "power problems," or power challenges. It usually has to do with the fact that when we share information with somebody else, that person has some informational power over us. That person can use in order to sell us some stuff, to market us some stuff, and that information can be aggregated, can be shared with others so there’s a certain informational profile can arise about us.
This is what has been the focal point of informational privacy research for a very long period of time. But I believe this kind of diatic relationship, if you want, between a person, a data subject that gives information and a process that receives information, is only part of the picture. We need to go beyond this relatively small-scale view, particularly when we look at the importance of memory.
Let me give you an example. For a very long period of time, we thought that sharing stuff on the Internet is somewhat dangerous because it’s not just our friends that have access to it, but it’s everybody around the world that has access to it. Hundreds of millions of people in thousands of jurisdictions, and somebody somewhere might actually be offended by what we have to say and might get a court to agree and then we find ourselves having to defend our actions. Much like the Google managers had to do a few weeks back when they were successfully sued and convicted in an Italian court for what they did or didn’t do on YouTube.
And so that’s been around... that view has been around for a couple of years. It’s called the panopticon. The panopticon basically is an idea that has been with us for a hundred and some years, invented by Jeremy Bentham in Britain, the idea is it would be great to create a prison in which the prisoners don’t know when the prison guards watched them. They have to assume that they’re always watched and therefore they have to behave all the time. Similarly, because we don’t know who is watching us online, we have to behave all the time to the lowest common denominator and therefore our behavior is skewed as constrained. And many people have been writing about that.
But I believe there is with digital memory something much more problematic coming up and that has to do with the longevity of digital memory. So, we have to face the fact that what we say and do online today will not only be viewed by the hundreds of millions of people that are online today, but might be viewed and interpreted differently by people and institutions 10 years, 20 years, 30 years down the road when we are no longer young and we might not be as engaged in public discourse and protests any more, but we might want to apply for a well-paid investment banker’s job and then they might just Google us and find out that 15 years earlier we said something that wasn’t so complimentary to the banks, or so. So, therefore, comprehensive digital memory creates what I call a temporal panopticon. It creates a situation in which we have to fear that we are not only watched today, but we are watched by future generations, by our future. And that really dramatically constrains what we ought to do online and pushes us toward self-censorship, exactly where we don’t need self-censorship because we need robust public debate online, that’s what online discourse is all about.
Question: What kinds of new problems could arise as our lives become archived?
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: Well let me give you an example of what happens already today. So, there are people who lose their jobs who have relationships blow up basically because of what they said online earlier on. But there are also cases that are quite shocking in a way. I had a woman call in at one of the radio shows that I did and she told me about her case. She had been convicted of a crime in the State of California many years ago, when she was 17 years. Served in prison and then was released. Started a new life, went to a place, found a husband, had kids, started a family. Basically everything was in order. She even found God, and so hey, this sounds like a happy end story. Except, one day a colleague of her son in school Googled her and found a website of mug shots of all prison inmates in California over the last 20 or 25 years. And she was right in there. And suddenly the community, her small community that she lived in knew that she actually was an ex-convict and immediately ostracized her. And her new life unraveled. And she called in and said what can I do? And I said nothing. This is the unfortunate side effect of a digital memory that doesn’t forget while our society forgets. We forgive even ex-convicts. But the digital memory doesn’t do that anymore.
Recorded April 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen