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James Besse reflects on Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s seminal work on digital memory.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 256pp.

Recent decades have seen the quick development of digital memory aids. Self-tracking, which took off in the late 2000s, attracts a great deal of corporate and academic interest. From smartphone apps like MyFitnessPal and Moodpanda to the widely popular Fitbit, digital technologies seem to have changed. They now alter how we remember the details of our own lives. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s Delete considers the ways that digital technologies have changed the relationship of human memory to technology.

Memory augmentation technologies are not a recent invention. Human memory is frail and subject to perversion, erasure, and misinterpretation. Since the Middle Ages, people attempted to supplement it. Whether as smart watches or paper diaries, technology can help to augment our inefficient human memory. Historically, the idea has been to use such technologies to enhance our memory in the pursuit of self-knowledge and ethical behaviour. By recording our lives, we could better know our faults and errors, and come to learn from them. For writers like Michel Foucault, “external memory” is a technology of the self which ensures a stable, durable and reliable account of one’s history, preventing the repetition of past errors and enabling one to perfect themselves. For most of human history, memory had been extended by writing journals, novels, and letters. It took a great degree of effort for one could only spend so much time journalling. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger writes:

Since the early days of humankind, we have tried to remember, to preserve our knowledge, to hold on to our memories, and we have devised numerous devices and mechanisms to aid us. Yet through millennia, forgetting has remained just a bit easier and cheaper than remembering. (48)

Today, externalised memory in connected to ‘lifestyle’ trends and serves as material for measuring our weight, sleeping patterns or relationships. An editor at Wired, Gary Wolf popularised the term “the quantified self,” which is now the name of a collective that he co-founded. The underlying philosophy is that we should track and quantify our lives for the purpose of self-improvement. Among the most prominent spokesmen for self-tracking, Wolf posits that automated sensors and quantification make constant measurement and ‘objective’ analysis easy. Everyday life can be recorded automatically and patterns are easily identified. We have powerful quantification tools at our disposal and get more data with less (or no) effort. This is a distinctly contemporary approach to external memory. How much did I sleep and when? How productive was I at work? Is my new social circle making me happier? Wolf thinks that quantified answers to such questions can better our lives: “Automated sensors do more than give us facts; they also remind us that our ordinary behaviour contains obscure quantitative signals that can be used to inform our behaviour, once we learn to read them” (Wolf, “The Data-Driven Life”). There are plenty of examples: from apps that track our productivity, social media presence, and emotional states, to fitness and dieting apps. Fitbit is the best-known example: a fitness-oriented smartwatch that records heart rate, speed and distance to help athletes track their progress.

Linnea, who began training for the Swedish Classic Circuit, says: “my fitbit helps me connect the data with the feeling in my body so I know when I can go further” (Linnea, “fitbit.com”). It let Linnea strive towards a better self. The Fitbit does not need active or conscious user input. Compare, for instance, using a stopwatch and a pencil to record the time it took you to swim a given distance in a notebook and graphing the change by hand, to simply switching on your Fitbit and letting it do it for you.

Remembering has become the default. Facebook and Google automatically record our web activity and CCTV cameras capture what we do in public places. Collecting our data is neither conscious nor time-consuming, it is the default setting, an in-built feature of any digital device. Mayer-Schönberger warns that we cannot analyse different forms of externalised memory with the same framework. In fact, he believes it to be dangerous:

Too perfect a recall, even when it is benignly intended to aid our decision-making, may prompt us to become caught up in our memories, unable to leave our past behind, and much like Borges’ Funes, incapable of abstract thoughts. It is the surprising curse of remembering. (13)

We remember far too much, Mayer-Schönberger says, and this inhibits action, thought, and the ability to change and grow. One sees this beautifully depicted in “The Entire History of You,” an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. In this narrative, implanted devices in citizens’ brains record everything they see and hear, and allow them to replay it on their mobile media. Rather than bettering their behaviour, this device leads the main character into a spiral of doubt and paranoia. His constant recollection of past events leads to the breakdown of his relationship. Memory in “The Entire History of You” exists in excess, it’s a trap. It inhibits, rather than allow, ethical behaviour. It makes a happy life impossible.

In certain ways, this story is made for Mayer-Schönberger. It would not be surprising if the writers were familiar with his work. He believes that we need to learn how to forget and reduce the amount of external memory that we constantly produce. Freedom means the ability to delete. If we are to take any lessons from Delete, it is that contemporary forms of external memory, from smartwatches to Facebook and CCTV cameras, produce a distinct power dynamic: we do not always know what we remember or rather what is remembered about us. One of the most pressing inequalities exists between those who have access to digital memory and those who do not. The truth is somewhere between “The Entire History of You” and Florian Donnersmarck’s famous film about surveillance in the GDR, The Lives of Others, which portrays the practices of a Stasi officer monitoring the life of an artist and his wife. Our situation isn’t quite that: one rarely sees an individual surveilling an individual. It is rather the technologies themselves that surveil us.

This is an odd type of external memory because it is our memory but we have neither knowledge nor control of it. As Mayer-Schönberger writes, “often users do not know that their digital activities are being recorded and committed to digital memory” (88). When asked for this data, Facebook has simply refused to give it or contradicted itself by denying that the data even exists (Martineau, “Zuckerberg’s Testimony”). There are various groups which remember things about us without our knowledge or consent. Rory Carroll writes for The Guardian: “William Binney, a mathematician who worked at the NSA for almost 40 years and helped automate its worldwide eavesdropping, said Utah’s computers could store data at the rate of 20 terabytes – the equivalent of the Library of Congress – per minute” (Carroll, “Welcome to Utah”). Is this really our memory if we do not create it, own it or know about it? Is it memory or only the records of a surveillance state? Mayer-Schönberger’s project is to go beyond this question. The term “external memory,” rather than surveillance, gives us the best idea of how data is created, stored and kept: “Retaining information in our digital memories,” Mayer-Schönberger writes, “has become the default of how we operate, how we interact with our technical tools, and with each other” (169). Much of the data kept in archives owned by Facebook, Google and the NSA is data that all of us (self-trackers like Wolf, but also ordinary users of cell phones, social media, and search engines) have created. Data storage is the default setting. Much of this data is never seen by humans, only by algorithms that look for potential threats, such as terrorist plots. Instead of focusing on the difference between surveillance and its subjects, Mayer-Schönberger focuses on the dynamic between those who can access memory and those who cannot – accessibility and control over memory are the central inequalities in digital societies.

Before we forget, we should fight for regaining access to externalised memory, to make its collection transparent. If laws and social practices were implemented to delete external memory, where would they start? In a democratic society, the first issue must be accessibility. To know what to delete, we must learn what we remember, how we remember, and where we remember. The new power dynamic that Mayer-Schönberger points to is one of access to rather than constant creation of digital memory. We should not let his warning fall on deaf ears.


James Besse is based in Eastern Massachusetts. Among other things, his academic work focuses on social robotics, the sociology of knowledge, and protests movements in Central-Eastern Europe.

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