on Delete by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Total Recall by Gordon Bell & Jim Gemmell, and The Tyranny of E-Mail by John Freeman

The late Dick Egan, my former boss and the founder of EMC Corporation, liked to tell Wall Street analysts that “data storage is like heroin. Once the customer bites, we’ve got him hooked. He’ll need more and more just to keep up.” Wall Street believed him and EMC became the top growth stock of the 1990s. Led by software development, EMC’s technological advances shaped a new economic equation: It would now be cheaper for corporations and institutions to record and remember things than to ignore and forget them. "Remembering has become the norm, and forgetting the exception," Viktor Mayer-Schönberger writes in Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. He adds, "The economics of storage have made forgetting brutally expensive."

DeleteCover.jpgIn the age of the intelligent network, the system remembers things that we ourselves don’t commit to memory – or prefer to forget. Mayer-Schönberger’s polemic against remembering finds its poster child in Stacy Snyder, a Bachelor of Science in Education candidate who was denied certification after Millersville University officials obtained a suggestive photo of her posted on MySpace (see below). She filed a suit against the school in a U.S. district court in Pennsylvania. There is no question, as Mayer-Schönberger makes more than amply evident, that digitized information is more accessible, durable and comprehensive than ever. From here, he maintains that our vast and expanding memory pool “alters the balance of information power” against the individual.

Snyder.jpgBut just as Delete was being printed, a federal judge ruled against Snyder, who not only had been previously warned by the school to keep her webpages free of references to her students but had communicated with students through MySpace. Her “unprofessional behavior” and low-level competence had been exposed – as well as, it seems, Mayer-Schönberger’s calamitous vision. Snyder’s story is actually a familiar and longstanding one – about the boundary between our private and public lives and managing the peephole’s aperture between them.

Memory_Lanes.jpgI was initially drawn to Delete through resonant observations like this: “Until recently, the fact that remembering has always been at least a little bit harder than forgetting helped us humans avoid the fundamental question of whether we would like to remember everything forever if we could. Not anymore.” Mayer-Schönberger asserts that we have left behind the world of forgetting in which we have lived for millennia and that such an abandonment must result in pain. What, he asks, "is the actual impact that supplanting forgetting with remembering has on human beings?" It's a stimulating question. Unfortunately, he doesn't answer it, except to linger on issues of information privacy.

Mayer-Schönberger also makes the provocative assertion that “digital remembering negates time, and thereby threatens our ability to decide rationally.” It turns out that this idea is much broader than his narrow use for it. Digital memory leaps out at us, he says, and forces a rush to judgment. But I’m not convinced that “we undermine biological forgetting” by enhancing the speed of information retrieval. The opposite seems the more likely result -- since, as Saul Steinberg wrote in Reflections and Shadows, “Memory is a computer that all one’s life goes on accumulating data which are not always used, since man is often like an ocean liner that sets sail with only a single cabin occupied.”

TotalRecall.jpgMayer-Schönberger suggests that we consider the value of mandatory expiry dates for stored information. But in Total Recall, Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell not only argue for the eternal archive but extol the virtues of capturing and storing every last detail of our lives within it. “With the same ease with which you can now search for just about any subject on the Web, you will be able to search your own electronic memory for any arbitrary item of knowledge you have ever encountered, any snippet of conversation to which you have ever been party, any document that has ever passed before your eyes, any place you have ever visited, any person you have ever met. You become the librarian, archivist, cartographer, and curator of your life.”

BellRedShirt.jpgThus began CARPE – continuous archival and retrieval of personal experiences, the heart of Bell’s MyLifeBits project. Capture everything, discard nothing. Bell devised his own “memex” – a device worn around his neck to collect it all . “As of this writing I have 261 gigabytes of information save don my main computer and about 100 gigabytes accessible in my cloud [network]. I add about one gigabyte a month. This doesn’t include continuous audio and video, but that’s on the horizon.” In the future, “your e-memory follows you wherever you go, accessible from any device you happen to be using.”

Suddenly I long for the cultural book about the pleasures and perhaps the necessities of forgetting that Mayer-Schönberger didn’t write. At the same time, the authors blithely negate some of the issues raised in Delete. “Our culture will need to develop a whole new body of etiquette about who may record whom when and where,” conclude Bell and Gemmell with giddy understatement. Fairfield Porter once said that technology is dangerous because it is “idealism put into practice.”

So you don’t want to preserve unwanted, hurtful memories? Shame on you for cowardice. The authors simply quote Harvard psychology professor Daniel Schacter: “confronting, disclosing, and integrating those experiences we would most like to forget is the most effective counter to [unwanted recall].” (Mayer-Schönberger also quotes Schacter who says elsewhere that the constant reconstruction of our memory, entailing a benign faultiness, may provide major benefits.)

Bell asserts that total recall will also cancel the drawbacks of false memory. The authors cite the example of adults who “claimed that they had recovered long-repressed memories of sexual molestation” – implying that had they been recording their youth, such memories could be sorted out. Apparently it didn’t occur to the authors that a child rapist could just turn off all devices and proceed as usual.

In 1997, the Dutch novelist and journalist Hans Koning wrote in The Atlantic, “Our century is ending in an abundance of new technology, but it is largely about sending, storing, and retrieving information at lightning speed, not about creating. We’ve always been buttonholed by people who would tell us, ‘I could write a book’ about whatever was occupying them, and thank heaven they didn’t. Now they will, but the wisdom and creativity we need so badly will be as scarce as ever.”

Books about lives are created to remind us that lives themselves are created and that we have the potential to be more than recollections of ourselves. Doesn’t self-creation require that we forget or temporarily disable the force some memories may exert on us? The great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet wrote in his “9 to 10pm Poems”:

Forget the flowering almonds.
They aren’t worth it:
in this business
what cannot come back should not be remembered.

Memory is part of inspiration, but it may also be the main part of interruption. Mayer-Schönberger might have said that one problem with our networked world is that it remembers us too frequently and is too infrequently satisfied with its own company. When we’re remembered, the message often arrives in e-mail.

EMail_Logo.jpgIn The Tyranny of E-Mail, John Freeman notes that in a 2008 poll, “nearly half the people in AOL’s survey claimed that they were addicted to e-mail.” Some 67% admitted to checking e-mail in bed. But where Mayer-Schönberger sidles fearfully towards dystopia, Freeman examines our use of technology in order to increase the odds of getting our work done. He has also written the most readable of the three titles considered here, an allusive blend of historical retrospective, facts and anecdote, cultural awareness, philosophical musing, literary acuity, and sheer good sense.

TyrannyOfEmail.jpg“Who has the time to think clearly when under assault by this tsunami of other people’s needs?” he asks, a victim of “this state of being constantly on call.” But when we abstain from e-mail, our craving persists. The rewards of e-mail response trigger dopamine in the brain. “If we’re performing an action that doesn’t always pay out, but does some of the time, such as playing the slots, the lesson learned is that if we want a reward we need to keep puling that lever. So it is with our e-mail.” What is the reward we anticipate? Freeman identifies it as Someone is thinking of me. We’ve been remembered.

As we respond to this flattery and longed for self-identity (accessible, desirable), we divert attention from our creative goals. “In other words,” he continues, “a work climate that revolves around multitasking and constant interruptions has narrowed our cognitive window down to a core, basic facility: rote, mechanical tasks.” Here Freeman links with Koning’s caution above. We groove on the speed of things flying by, but we create very little from it. Furthermore, the disembodied, abrupt messages we receive apparently affect our reading ability (“eye-tracking studies have shown that people increasingly tend to leapfrog over long blocks of text”). Such as this paragraph.

Freeman.jpgIn the final 30 pages, Freeman introduces his concept of “a slow communication movement, a push back against the machines and the forces that encourage us to remain connected to them.” Not to mention the people. Now I know why Freeman doesn’t answer my e-mail. As the editor of Granta, Freeman practices ten rules for productive, limited e-mail usage. I’ve incorporated them into my regimen (and also, I don’t use a Blackberry). But rule number one is perhaps the most critical: Don’t send.

Delete by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger. Published by Princeton University Press, 10/16/09, 256 pages, $24.95 hardcover.

Total Recall by Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell. Published by Dutton, 9/17/09, 288 pages, $26.95 hardcover.

The Tyranny of E-Mail by John Freeman. Published by Scribner, 10/1/09, 244 pages, $25.00 hardcover.


my delight at facebook's deletion of the older messages in my inbox proves which side I'm on.

- Carol

Total Recall

Well on remembering and forgetting, I have a line I think of (although it's true,it is my own)which goes: 'If we give up loss,what will we have left?'
This was a fine article, Ron.

Your line

Yes Grace -- If we give up loss, then we're left with terabytes of trivia, at least if Gordon Bell has his way. In the heady 90s, people turned to the execs at technology companies for the meaning of life (at least in the world I lived in, as portrayed in WIRED Magazine etc). Technology would shape a new paradigm for living. Not so anymore. Execs at EMC and MICROSOFT and CISCO have more or less given up on social discourse and vision ... I think John Freeman's book offers the more pertinent picture of where things stand today -- a man thinking his way through his own habits with technology. Thanks for reading.