The advantages of amnesia

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger
Now that technology is bringing rapid advances in memory, Jessica Winter of the Boston Globe thinks that society needs new ways to forget and profiles the thinking of Viktor Mayer-Schönberger [also featured earlier on this blog].

“As digital-storage capacities reach seemingly boundless proportions, however, some thinkers are becoming nervous about the unintended consequences of memory technology. Certainly Google’s enormous reserves of user information, stored in dozens of secretive data centers across the world, and the literally photographic memory of the Internet Archive, which preserves billions of defunct Web pages for posterity, are enough to leave anyone rattled. New forms of memory are permanent and accessible from anywhere. As their reach grows, scholars are asking if now – perhaps for the first time in human history – we need to find ways to forget.

“We used to have a system in which we forgot things easily and had to invest energy in remembering,” says Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Now we’re switching to a system in which we remember everything and have to invest energy in order to forget. That’s an enormous transformation.”


In a working paper posted online last spring, “Useful Void: The Art of Forgetting in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing,” Mayer-Schönberger hypothesized a number of future big-picture costs of an unforgetting era. The assumption that every online comment and transaction is preserved somewhere, never to be forgotten, could suppress public speech and civic participation in ways that we could never calculate. There is also the contradiction whereby “personal” information – from private e-mails to sensitive identifying data – is indefinitely available on a remote server.”

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger was the keynote speaker at the recent Ars Electronic Festival, where this video interview with him was taken.

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