THE VIRTUE OF FORGETTING IN THE DIGITAL AGE
NOVEMBER 11, 2009
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ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Hi. I'm Robert Bloomfield, professor at Cornell University's
Johnson Graduate School of Management. Today we continue exploring Virtual Worlds
in the larger sphere of social media, culture, enterprise and policy. Naturally, our
discussion about Virtual Worlds takes place in a Virtual World. So join us. This is
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Cornell University and Immersive Workspaces. Welcome. This is Metanomics.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Welcome to Metanomics. Anyone old enough to be listening
to this show has said or done something they wished they hadn't, a thoughtless remark,
a moment of poor judgment or just plain clumsiness. After all, who hasn't had too much
to drink at the church social, tripped over a toddler and sent a nun flying face-first into a
bowl of guacamole? We've all been there. Maybe I'm overstating the case a little, but
whatever you said or did, you were embarrassed, you slept badly for a night or two, and
then the memory faded, and you went on with your life. And, most likely, the other
people who were there forgot about it well before you did, even the toddler and the nun.
Well, not anymore. Thanks to digital technology, you don't have to be a celebrity for
minor details of your life to rocket across the web and meant to be stored for, well,
forever. After all, someone had a cell phone camera at the church social, and you might
have even posted it yourself on your Facebook page. It seems funny now, but what
about in 15 years when you're running for elected office?
We're joined today by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, who has written a book about the
problems of an internet that never forgets. The book is called Delete: The Virtue of
Forgetting in the Digital Age. Viktor, welcome to Metanomics.
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Thank you very much. Glad that I could make it,
and thank you very much for having me.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Well, we're delighted to have you here, and I hope your book
is selling well. I'd also, by the way, like to welcome all of those who are watching us on
the web, on metanomics.net or in Second Life at our Metanomics Sim or any of our
event partners. And a special welcome to those of you at our new Metanomics event
partner, the MetaMeets community of the Virtual Holland region, whose bywords are:
Create, Innovate, Educate, Socialize and, most important, Cooperate. So welcome,
Virtual Holland. Everyone, please know we'll be tracking the text chat so keep those
questions and comments coming, wherever you're watching.
Viktor, first things first. You do know we're recording this.
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Yes, I do.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. So obviously you're not totally opposed to the memory
of the web, but let's start. I'd like to more or less following the structure of your book,
and, at the beginning, you used some stories to identify the problems that the memory
of the digital age can create. I guess first you talk about Stacy Snyder and
Andrew Feldmar. Tell us their stories.
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Sure, happy to. Stacy Snyder is an American
woman, single mother, who wanted to become a teacher and she had completed all of
her coursework at her university, but then when she should have gotten her teacher
certificate, she was told by the university administration that she wouldn't. And the
reason given to her at that time was that she had put a photograph on her MySpace
web page that showed Stacy with a pirate hat or a pirate cap and a plastic cup in her
hand, and the caption was "Drunken Pirate." The university administration said that this
would induce minors to drink alcohol, and, therefore, was unbecoming of a teacher.
At that time, Stacy was considering taking the photo offline, but at that time, Google had
already indexed it and so had other search engines, and other web crawlers had
crawled over it and archived it. So it was too late. As much as Stacy wanted the photo
to be forgotten, the internet didn't let her.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And it cost her her job.
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: And it cost her her job. It destroyed her life's
dream of being a teacher. The other story, the other actual case is that that of
Andrew Feldmar. Andrew is a psychotherapist, in his late sixties, living in Vancouver,
Canada. He wanted to cross into the United States, to pick a friend up at Seattle
International Airports, just as he has done many times before. The border guard, the
Immigration officer Googled Feldmar and came across an article that Feldmar had
written five years earlier, in which he confessed that, in the 1960s, he had taken LSD.
Confronted with the article on Google, Andrew Feldmar conceded that this was true,
and the Immigration officer barred Feldmar from entering the United States, not just at
that time, but forever. So from this moment onward, Andrew Feldmar can no longer pick
up his friends from Seattle International Airport or fly to conferences to the United States
or drive to the United States just to visit friends.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: You used those problems to describe one of the problems of
digital memory, which is how these old stories or what would have been private stories
end up affecting our personal and professional reputations and how we're treated by
employers and by law enforcement.
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Indeed. Indeed.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: There's another side of this, which is that digital memory--just
forgetting about other people--can also affect our own lives. You talk about the story of
a woman known as AJ, who is reported to have a perfect episodic memory. Tell us her
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: That's right. So both Stacy's and Andrew's cases
could be looked at, and we could say, "Well, it's their own fault because they put
something out there, volunteered some information, and then others gained access to
that information, and that created the power imbalance whether it's the government or
whether it's the university administration. It's their own fault, in a way." but then there is
this other side of digital memory that is kind of troubling. And AJ is one of a handful of
human beings who have been diagnosed with a condition that makes it very hard for
them biologically to forget. So if you ask AJ about a particular day, she can tell you what
was on television that day, who called her, how the weather was, when she got up and
so forth, for all of the days the last 30 years.
Now this seems to me to at first to be a blessing, right? I would never forget anymore
where I parked my car at the local mall. But, for AJ, it turns out that it's actually a curse.
It's a curse for her because she's so steeped into the history, so steeped into the detail
that she's remembering, that it is very hard for her to see the forest rather than the
trees, to generalize and to abstract, to be able to decide in the present. The Argentinean
short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges has a wonderful short story about this where he
said, "Look. Forgetting is really about being human because forgetting enables us to get
to rid ourselves of information that we no longer need because we have abstracted, we
have sucked out of it what is essential, kept that and discarded the rest." If you are like
AJ, you can't discard the information that you are no longer needing, and you're steeped
so deeply into it that it affects your ability to act and to think.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: So your book, in some ways, is like one of these contrarian
books. You're taking something that we normally think of as being a great thing, either
like AJ we personally individually have a great memory or, like the rest of us, we just
rely on technology to improve our memory, and that seems overall a good thing, and
you're arguing the bad side. You must get a lot of people who are saying you're only
looking at the bad side; you're ignoring all the positives.
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Yes, I do. Now in the book, I take quite some
pains and go through a number of positive sides of remembering as well. And my
argument really is a little more sophisticated than just arguing the sort of contrarian
position. I suggest in the book, and I believe that's the case, that we have a biological
mechanism by which we forget, and therefore, we humans try to hold onto memory, but
the biologic of forgetting enables us to focus on the real important things that we do
want to remember. And we remember them either in our mind or by externalizing
memory, that is, by creating an external artifact, by writing something down, by painting
it, by telling stories over and over again, like the great epics. And that enables us to hold
onto the memory. But, by and large, by default we forget the rest.
Remembering has been in the analog times for thousands of years relatively difficult for
human beings, time-consuming, took some effort. Nothing in the analog past has
changed it. Neither the movies nor the phonographs nor anything like that.
Remembering always remained a little more extensive than forgetting. And that exactly
has become the reverse in the digital age, where now remembering is the default and
forgetting is the hard thing.
Take the digital cameras that we use. We connect them to our computers, and most of
us press the button to upload all of the photographs, irrespective of whether they're
good or bad, onto our hard disk because just the three seconds that it takes to consider
whether a photograph is good or not are too costly for us, and it's cheaper to just store
everything. That way we become digital packrats.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Well, anyone who looked at my computer would know that
you're pretty accurate in your description of how many people save things. You have a
list of solutions that you propose and--
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Yes, but let me, Rob, if I may. If we have this
situation, then that has a lot of positive sides, as you have already said, but then there
are two negative sides or two potential challenges as well. One I associate with power,
that is, others have information about us that we already have forgotten, and so they
have some information advantage over us, and they can play on that. Society might
have an information advantage over us, and that might push us toward self-censorship.
And the other that I mention is the time dimension. That's really AJ's story that we
already went through, namely that, if all of our past is constantly with us, that we
accidentally can trip over it all the time, it might cloud our ability to side in the present.
So these are the two challenges. And then, if we see these two challenges, we really
can then think about potential approaches to react to them.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: You split your proposed solutions basically down the lines
you've just described, those dealing with power in our relations with other versus those
that are really just personal.
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Yes.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And I'd like to start with a solution that you classify as one for
the power problem, although it seems more general, and that's abstinence. If
Stacy Snyder hadn't posted a picture of herself drinking, in a pirate hat, she'd still have
a job. And, if Andrew Feldmar hadn't talked about his long-ago drug use, in a recent
publication, he'd still be able to travel to and from the U.S. How far do you think
abstinence can actually go in addressing this problem?
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Well, a lot of people are now advocating some
form of digital abstinence. President Obama has suggested that we should be more
digitally abstinent, particularly on Facebook, when he addressed school children in
September. Many universities around the country now inform their students and suggest
to the students that they are very careful in what they put on Facebook, what they put
on their MySpace pages and so forth because it might impede their future chances to
find employment. Employers are looking at these things now.
And so digital abstinence is being suggested quite frequently. I am somewhat hesitant. I
am somewhat hesitant to suggest digital abstinence as well, although it's probably not a
bad idea overall. But I'm hesitant because I am afraid it impoverishes the digital tools
that we have available. Rather than not sharing information, I think we should continue
to share information much like we share oral information with each other. We talk to
each other, but our talk is ephemeral: it vanishes relatively quickly. And so one of the
things that I think we need to do is really to not be abstinent, but share information and
make that information more ephemeral.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: You talk about a couple of the advantages of having, if not a
digital memory, sort of a shared memory. In your book, fairly early on you talk about the
importance that shared memory has to our culture, primarily originally through
newspapers, but also storytelling and so on. Can you just maybe spend a minute talking
about what shared memory is and how we can retain it while avoiding some of these
problems of persistent memory?
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Sure. At the end of the day, what we want to
remember is up to us. It's an individual decision, as well as a societal decision if society
wants to remember something, and therefore, wants to be frequently reminded of some
event perhaps in the past. And as we take these decisions in the past, we could share
them with each other. If we were watching in the old days Walter Cronkite present the
news, then that was what people thought reality was at the end of the day. What he
presented was the reality. Today this is not the case that much anymore because we
have fragmented realities. And so we perhaps, at a broader scale, share less of this
societal memory. If that's the case, then that's not necessarily bad, but it means that, on
an individual level, we have a higher responsibility to decide what we want to retain and
what we want to get rid of because society doesn't take care of that anymore. There's
no societal filtering function. There is no Walter Cronkite in the back of our mind, who's
filtering out what to tell us and what not. As we are on our own, filtering the information
streams on the internet, we need to be more responsible in also making sure that not
only we are filtering what we are accessing, we're doing it anyway, but also what we're
retaining and retaining in the long run.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Joel Savard has a comment in the chat. He says, "This goes
past personal posting of information however. Anyone around you can be recording or
videotaping or photographing anything you do at almost any point in time, and they can
post it, and, with facial recognition, have it auto-tagged and be around forever, even
though you had nothing to do with publishing the item in the first place." So abstinence
clearly is not enough, and I assume your response to this would be to emphasize
privacy rights. Is that right?
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Yes. I mean I think that has been our society's
response because, if we don't want to become digital luddites, we need to come up with
some norms. And, if we codify these norms, they become oftentimes information privacy
Now interestingly enough or importantly enough, in the United States, we don't have a
comprehensive information privacy right act, only vis a vis the federal government we
have some information privacy rights. And that means that, in the United States, we can
go to court to enforce our information privacy rights, and that's not going to change
anytime soon. But, even if it were, I would be quite reluctant or quite skeptical of its
efficiency. In the European Union, you have relatively strong information privacy rights,
but it turns out that they're rarely used by the citizens, rarely invoked by the citizens, to
enforce their information privacy in courts.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: One discussion I found very interesting in the book is, you
talk about copyright, and I guess this was in the time of Queen Anne, in the early 1700s,
and you argue that copyright effectively shifted power from publishers, the people who
owned the printing presses, to the authors who were writing the content. I'm wondering,
do we need one more shift here where we shift some power to the people who are the
characters who are being written about, the subject of the content? What ability do I
have to not let people take pictures of me and post them on their Facebook page?
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Yes, Rob, I do think so. Copyright really was a
very important invention because it completely reshaped the field of information control
or information ownership, if you want. Before the copyright act of Queen Anne, the
publishers owned the information in the books, the content of the books. After the
copyright act, it was the authors who controlled it. And perhaps we need a similar shift
with respect to privacy as well, where we really accept, as a society, not just that author
information should also have some modicum of control over it, but that we should also
retain some modicum of control over our personal information, even if we share that
personal information with others.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: So there's a question here from Mystical Demina who--and I'll
say the chat is going so quickly, I've lost it already. Oh, here it is, "I still don't understand
how Google or search engines can make copies of content and cache it. Isn't that a
copyright infringement?" Do you have anything to say about that?
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: I think their argument would be, "This is a fair
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. So limited copying for limited purposes is legitimate
use of copyrighted material.
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: That's right. Now keep in mind, Rob, that fair use
itself is an institution that is embattled right now because much of the landscape of
copyright is being rewritten and redrawn through contractual arrangement. You always
sign some contract when you use some copyrighted information, and that restricts fair
use quite significantly, as well as through technological measures. And so as we see
fair use shrinking, perhaps that will have some impact on what Google can do in the
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Now actually we haven't really talked much about your
background because I know that so many of these privacy laws depend on the
jurisdiction you're in. You, I know, have dealt with many jurisdictions where you have
lived and worked. Can you just sort of walk through those for us?
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Sure. I am a native Austrian and spent a decade
on the faculty of Harvard's Kennedy School before moving last year to Singapore to
become the director of the Information Innovation Policy Research Center. So I've lived
in Europe. I've lived in the United States. I now live in Asia. As a lawyer and as a social
scientist, I have knowledge of both the European and the American side of information
attribution laws, whether they are copyright or whether they are privacy. There are quite
some differences between these two. Sometimes it's helpful to look at what has worked
and what hasn't.
So for example, information privacy rights in Europe haven't worked. But what has
worked in Europe, at least to an extent, are information ecology norms, that is the
norms that mandate that information ought to be deleted after a certain period of time.
We know that and we have that in certain areas already, and we're very familiar with it.
So criminal records, some criminal records, are being expunged after a certain period of
time, if the person has been well-behaving. And we delete bad credit history after a
certain period of time, and the like. So in that sense, we have norms that are forgiving of
past mistakes, and these are information ecology norms.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Actually, there are some questions here so let me turn this
over to the chat for a minute or two. Kianeira MacDiarmid says, "I recently read an
article that said everyone should check Google, Yahoo! and MSN regularly, to protect
their reputation and future employment options. How often should we check that?" Do
you have advice for people on that front?
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Yes, you should check that, but there is relatively
little you can do about that, at least without spending a lot of money. There is an
attorney in the Seattle area, who had difficulties in the past even getting through the Bar
and being admitted to the Bar and getting clients because when you do a Google
search on him, what pops up is a very old, outdated and incorrect article from a student
newspaper accusing him of, I think, date-rape, if I recall correctly, although I might be
wrong on this. And he can't get this off the Google cache.
Now what is interesting to me is that there are now commercial companies, like
Reputation Defender and others, who take your money and then work with online
service providers, like Google, to get rid of some of those bad results in your search
history or what would come up when somebody is searching for you. But this is
somewhat frustrating, it seems to me, and somewhat saddening because then only the
rich people will have access to forgetting, and the rest of us will have to deal with
permanent memory. That can't be the right solution.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I'm just wondering then, I guess given the state of current law
across these various jurisdictions, it sounds like really none of these jurisdictions would
allow me much recourse if someone photographed me doing something that might
compromise my reputation. They would own that photograph. They could post it
wherever they want. Is there any jurisdiction in which I would have recourse if that
ended up in the Google cache?
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Yes. In Europe, you would have a right to your
own image, and you could exercise that right. The problem is that, even if you know
about that right, and few people do, how do you approach Google, and how do you kind
of force them to comply? How often has Google been truly threatened by a German or a
French based on the right to one's own image, to remove an image? I think that's
extremely rare, and, because it's extremely rare, Google never had to put in place an
efficient, fast and easy-to-use mechanism by which we can actually exercise our rights,
even if we have them, like in some continental European nations.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: So that takes us to our next topic, which is not so much
privacy rights as privacy digital rights management. But we're at the bottom of the hour,
and so we're going to take a quick break, and we'll return for more discussion with
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of the book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the
Digital Age. But first, we're going to take a quick moment looking into our archives,
looking back at Metanomics.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: With Metanomics now in its third season, we thought it’d be
fun to take a look back at some of our past shows and guests, since September of
2007. With over 80 episodes to choose from, we chose some of the most interesting,
engaging and occasionally contentious discussions. As always, you can see the
complete episodes at Metanomics.net or on our iTunes channel.
METANOMICS: LIVE FREE AND PROSPER:
GOVERNMENT’S PLACE IN VIRTUAL WORLDS AND ONLINE COMMUNITIES
OCTOBER 7, 2009
ADAM THIERER: Well, look, I want to make sure I separate some things here. When I
talk about the elitism that I’m concerned with is political enforced elitism, if you will. It’s
the elitism from above, up on high, as opposed the elitist viewpoints of those and
maybe, as you said, your Ivy League friends or academics or the Ivory Tower in
general. I have no problem with that. I like the viewpoints of those academics and
hearing from even privacy advocates about what their concerns are. I think those
sometimes are valid, and sometimes they are legitimate things that we should be
exploring. Whether we should enforce by law prohibitions based upon those concerns is
an entirely different matter.
So to get back to the Gmail example you mentioned, we have to go back to the Dark
Ages of 2004 when most of us were using AOL or maybe Yahoo! and getting very
limited amount of email storage, ten megabytes or something, usually much less than
that. I don’t know if you or any of our viewers out there remember, but back then you
had to delete every other email for fear of them butting up against your buffer or your
limit. And, all of a sudden, Gmail came along and offered at that time an astonishing
gigabyte of storage, and it’s now up around six or seven gigabytes, I believe. And
everybody’s offering more and more and more. The point is, at that point in time, Gmail
said, “The quid pro quo here, the deal we’re going to make with consumers is, we’re
going to give you this service and all this storage for free, but you’re going to have to
accept some advertising around it.”
Well, certain privacy advocates went bananas and said, “No, no, no, no. We can’t have
that because people will be surrendering too much personal information.” Again, they’re
sort of sheep. They’ll just go along with it and be led to the slaughter. My argument at
the time and still today is that, well, this is a choice we should be allowed to make for
ourselves. I’m willing to trade away some potential information about myself or at least
be served up as contextual ads that basically can offer me this free service, which is
something that we take it for granted that these email services do cost money, but we
get them all free.
And today, there’s nearly 150 million people around the world, who use free Gmail
services, and that’s a steadily growing share, and yet there are some people who say
we shouldn’t have access to it because of privacy concerns. So I’ll just say we have to
accept the tradeoffs and understand that there is no free lunch out there. You have to
understand that, if you’re going to take something for free, there might be something
you give up. In this case, maybe it’s a bit of privacy or the annoyance of having ads
accompany your email.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Hi. Welcome back to Metanomics. We're returning for more
discussion with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of the book Delete: The Virtue of
Forgetting in the Digital Age. I'd like to start this half actually, Viktor, you were just
mentioning to me that you were on NPR's Talk of the Nation and heard a story that you
found haunting. Can you share that with us?
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Yes, I'd love to. It was a very gripping story.
Consider the case of this 29-year-old woman, married, the mother of four, who
committed a crime when she was a juvenile and was sent to prison, was in prison when
she was 18, was then released later on. Found God. Found a new life. Found a
husband. Moved to a new place. Restarted her life and really is a different person now.
Has four kids and all that.
All of this life, the second chance that she built herself and society gave her, in a way, is
under threat of coming apart because apparently an internet company is putting online
government prison mugshots of prisoners from California over the last 20 years and
tagging them with their names. So a school colleague, a friend of the daughter of that
woman, Googled the mother and came across this prison mugshot and therefore
became aware that her friend's mother had been incarcerated before. And that word
spread like wildfire in that little village.
Now the four kids of that woman are avoiding--the social ties that the family has
established over time are now breaking apart and breaking off, and they are being
ostracized by their community and all that. She came in, and she called me. She said,
"Help me. Help me do something about that." And all that I could say is, "I'm sorry.
There is nothing that I can think of at this point in time to solve your problem."
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Well, when I think about the nature of the problems that
you've described and also some of your solutions, it isn't really clear that
abstinence--this wasn't really her choice as far as the--I mean she could have not
committed that crime, naturally, but, as far as the actual digital footprint, that was not an
issue that was her choice. It isn't clear that privacy rights would have helped. You also
talk about privacy digital rights management. Would that have been something that
might have made this story less tragic?
SCHӦNBERGER: Possibly, but not necessarily because, in this case, the information
is public record, right? These were the prison mugshots. And then a commercial entity
just grabbed this public information and is republishing it and making it easily accessible
for everyone. It wasn't accessible easily before. It was compartmentalized. Now it is
accessible and accessibly way into the future. And that's the problematic part. So really,
digital rights management, I think, couldn't take care of that problem, I'm afraid.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: What is the difference between privacy and privacy digital
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Privacy digital rights management basically says,
"Look. Let's give each and every one of us information privacy rights, but let's not have
enforcements through courts in the traditional system. Let's have enforcements through
technology so that, if we share information, we also have some way of telling our
technology with whom we want to share this information. And, if that person tries to
pass on our information to somebody else, the technology will not let that happen."
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: When we turn to the more personal side, just the difficulties
that a lack of forgetting poses for us individually, you talk about a solution of cognitive
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Yes.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: What is that?
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Cognitive adjustment is just, in short, "Suck it up,
and live with it." It is, "Let's adjust the way by which we evaluate and process
information from our past, from each other's past. Let's not be disturbed by our past and
others' past. If we were in prison ten years ago, well, so be it. Let's not prejudice each
other based on past events because we have to understand we all evolve, we grow, we
change as time passes, and so we're different human beings now than we were
perhaps ten years ago. And we should just accept that and move on."
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: This sounds a little like something I was taught in temple
when I was young, where we were told, "Forgive, but never forget." And I'm wondering
is that what we all need to do now with the memory of the web?"
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Rob, you're so right. I subscribed to the "forgive,
but never forget" thinking for a very long period of time, until I began to read a lot of
cognitive psychology, in preparation for the book. I realized that, in fact, our forgetting,
our human biologically forgetting, as a way by which we forgive. If we perceive
something to not be relevant anymore because we have forgiven the person a past
transgression, for example, we forget about it. And with good reason because we say
we have moved on. We have forgiven. It is not relevant. Let's kind of delete that out of
our shared memory. And so, in that sense, forgetting is an element of forgiving. It helps
forgiving to happen.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: How does that relate to the last solution that you discuss,
which is full contextualization?
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Yes. If, in fact, it is useful for us to forget in order
to forgive, then full contextualization might not work. What is full contextualization? Full
contextualization is the idea that basically we are troubled by the memory of past
events, not because we remember them or we have digital artifacts that help us
remember them, but because we don't remember them with all the context involved. We
don't remember enough, in short, and, if only we could remember everything about our
past, everything of each other's pasts, and go back in time and replay the events of our
past or each other's past, then we could reevaluate the situations and come to the same
conclusions as we did when we went through that the first time and move on and
disregard it, if we need to. So in other words, full contextualization, the argument is,
would help us overcome the difficulty of putting experiences in memory into a temporal
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: In your book, you talk about one problem of digital memory
which is unlikely to be fixed by something like full contextualization. You talk about the
case where the Netherlands actually developed a very extensive database of
information about their citizens, and the Nazis, when they took control of the
Netherlands, also took control of that data, which they then used to persecute various
members of the population there. How severe do you think that type of problem is, and
is there any solution?
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Well, that's right. Full contextualization only works
(a) if I can capture everything digitally, which I can't; (b) if I understand that everybody is
well-meaning and everybody will be well-meaning, even in the distant future; that's the
Dutch Netherlands case; and (c) it will only work if we have plenty of time at hand to
actually go back time and time again to relive each other's experiences of our past, as I
don't think one, two and three hold. I think full contextualization is an interesting idea,
but not something that will help us tremendously in tackling the challenges posed by
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: So it's not going to help if someone, in bad faith, is taking
data to use against us, and it also sounds like it is unlikely to be a very helpful cure in a
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Yes. Yes, absolutely. So I am grappling with the
situation that we have these six approaches, three of them--the digital abstinence, the
information privacy rights and the privacy DRM--really deal more with the power
dimension of digital remembering. And the other three--the cognitive adjustments, the
information ecology norms and the full contextualization--really tend to address more
the time dimension. But none of them offer a silver bullet, although they all are uniquely
helpful in their own way. But perhaps we can even come up with some innovative
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. I'm looking at the time, and I think we've gotten
through much of your book. Let me just tell people there's a lot more in the book, and so
this one-hour discussion is not a replacement for dashing off in the Real World or
virtually to Amazon to pick up a copy of Viktor Mayer Schönberger's Delete. But I'd like
to move on with our remaining few minutes, Viktor, to ask you about an article that you
have in the most recent Washington and Lee Law Review. This is the symposium on
Virtual Worlds, and you have an article on what is, I guess, the inherent unregulability of
Virtual Worlds. You call it Virtual Heisenberg. Can you walk us through what you see as
being the difficulty of regulating Virtual World platforms?
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Yes. That's a big question, of course.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah. And you have about four minutes.
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Wonderful. More and more regulators, more and
more governments around the world are becoming interested in regulating multiplayer
online games, but also Virtual Worlds, like Second Life. And they're doing that partly
because of scare stories of pedophilia, pornography, gambling and so on and partly
because, quite frankly, they have difficulties understanding what Virtual Worlds really
are. It would help if they would just plunge into Second Life and walk around and try it
out a bit. So they are getting into this mode of regulating, and, when you have
governments come in and regulate, what will this do? Normally lawyers look at it and
say, "Well, then they regulate the Virtual World provider, let's say Linden Lab, and
Linden Lab will change its terms of services or its software code to comply with the
pressure of the regulator or with the law, and then we move on."
But it's not that easy. It's not that easy because users of Virtual Worlds also have a
choice in which World they want to live in, they want to homestead in, and, by doing so,
they have quite a bit of flexibility to choose not only the Virtual World provider, but also
the jurisdiction in which the Virtual World provider resides. I can choose, theoretically
speaking, a Virtual World provider in Malaysia, if I prefer the laws in that jurisdiction over
the laws in the United States. Or, I can select a Virtual World provider in Europe or in a
particular country in Europe if I prefer to do that. In other words, there is a little bit of
what experts call an arbitraging going on.
That arbitraging on the user level is not the only arbitrage in town. You also have some
arbitrage possibility on the provider level because provider not necessarily need to
reside in the United States, for example. Linden Lab could, quite theoretically, move
offshore and reside in a different jurisdiction. If that's the case, then regulators, Real
World regulators, government would lose their ability to control the Virtual World
providers, and, therefore, the interaction in the Virtual Worlds.
So what can they do to stop that from happening? What can governments do to stop
this arbitrage? Well, one way is to basically prohibit people from signing up with Virtual
Worlds that are outside of the United States or outside of the jurisdiction. That's
possible, but that's hard to push through legislatively because it's very unpopular.
The other thing that they can do that's done much more often is to coordinate with each
other so they have like an international convention so that all jurisdictions, all the
governments in the connected world, for example the western world, have the same
laws on the books, and therefore, the laws are uniform. And if the Virtual World provider
moves from one country to another country, that doesn't help in evading or moving out
of a particular set of rules, moving away from those. If that's the case, then we have a
pretty good compliance regime. The problem, however, is that all these governments
violently disagree on what values to protect and what things to prohibit on the internet
and especially in Virtual Worlds. The coordination is always going to be relatively hard,
but it does happen. And the European Union really looks into this sort of regulatory
space of Virtual Worlds quite significantly at this moment, thinking about what it can do
in this space.
But I cautioned them. Let me just finish that point. I cautioned them. I tell them, "Be
careful what you wish for because, if you push Virtual World providers too hard or if you
push users too hard by constraining Virtual World providers, by constraining Linden Lab
too hard, all that you get is unhappiness among the users and the Virtual World
providers and a huge incentive to come up with an innovative different solution, for
example peer-to-peer provisioning of Virtual Worlds. And then what you have at your
hands is the same disaster that you had on your hands with music file-sharing. You had
Napster to start with. Napster had a control bottleneck. You could have worked with
Napster. "Instead, you battled Napster. You forbade Napster from happening. And the
next step of innovation was a much more decentralized system of peer-to-peer
provision of file-sharing, which is much harder to control. We might end up having a
peer-to-peer provision Virtual World system, which is extremely hard to control, and
governments might be extremely frustrated in trying to regulate such a system." So, in
other words, they shouldn't regulate too hard. They should twice think before regulating
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: That's a very interesting point at the end because I'm often
thinking about issues where private industries are trying to tread with a very light hand
to avoid regulation. Groups like the Motion Pictures Association of America will agree to
rate their own films because they're worried that, if they don't do it, Congress will step in
with a heavier hand. And this sounds like the flip side of that, where the regulators don't
want to push too hard on these Virtual World platforms, at risk of instead of being able
to deal with them, having to deal directly with users who are remotely hosting Virtual
Worlds that are really much more unregulable than what we have now.
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Exactly. That's what an enlightened regulator
would do. I am afraid that it's unclear at this point in time whether enlightenment will
descend on our Real World regulators.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Well, we'll leave it at that, and everyone will live in suspense,
depending on their own views of the enlightenment of Real World regulators. Thank you
so much, Victor Mayer-Schönberger, for joining us today, to talk about your book
Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, and I hope we'll see you again on
VIKTOR MAYER-SCHӦNBERGER: Thank you so much for having me, Rob.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: It was a pleasure. And just to end where I began, I'd like to
point out that this edition of Metanomics is being archived forever on the web, and you
and your colleagues will be able to find it in 30 years.
We come now to the final portion of our show Connecting The Dots. Actually, rather
than expanding on some of the ideas that Viktor and I discussed on Delete, I've been
thinking about something else over the last few days, which is that today is Veterans
Day in the United States, or, depending on where you live, it might be Armistice Day or
Day of Remembrance. But regardless of what you call it, November 11th is a day to
think about the costs of war, borne not only by our veterans, but by civilians as well.
If you've been watching Metanomics even just occasionally, you know that Virtual
Worlds are positioned to play a number of roles in warfare. Just look at some of the
uses of the newly announced Second Life Enterprise for training: Before seeing active
duty, members of the U.S. Navy can enter the simulators of the Naval Undersea
Warfare Center, which is just one of countless environments devoted to training.
And afterwards, if the bad fortunes of war make it necessary, then they can visit the
amputee virtual environment support space, AVESS, a project that is researching the
peer support needs of the Military amputee community and is looking to establish
protocols for addressing those needs in a virtual environment. And AVESS joins other
virtual environments that are dedicated to the treatment of post-traumatic stress
disorder and other types of challenges for veterans. So there's no question that we're
seeing Virtual Worlds come into play in many dimensions of military engagement.
So on this November 11th, I'd like to suggest one more Military use of Virtual Worlds,
which is to help the politicians who start the wars get a better sense of what they're
getting us all into, and I will motivate this with a little psychology. Psychologists
sometimes talk about the difference between taking a near view and a far view of
situations. So a far view of having children, for example. You don't have kids, and you're
thinking about it, and what do you think about? You think about sunny days at the zoo,
telling bedtime stories, the devoted love of a young person who thinks everything you
say sparkles with genius and wisdom. It's very easy to think that way when being a
parent is far. But, if you're a new parent, you're taking a very near view, which involves
lots of messy and smelly details that I probably don't need to outline here.
Well, it turns out something very similar happens in the case of warfare. I get these
quotes from a blog post by Robin Hanson, author of Overcomingbias.com: "Soldiers in
rear areas express more hatred of the enemy and more ferocious attitudes toward them
than frontline troops. Civilians at home are more likely to express violent rhetorical
hatred against the enemy and bloodthirsty joy in killing them. The farther from the front,
the more rhetorical ferociousness is expressed and rhetorical enthusiasm for the whole
fighting enterprise. The proportion of empty rhetoric expands with each step toward the
rear. War is successively more idealized, the enemy successively more dehumanized,
attitudes toward killing successively more callous and the whole affair more like the
cheering of sports fans."
If we have Virtual Worlds designed to train soldiers, maybe we can tweak those designs
to provide those on the home front with a near view of what war and the enemy are
really like. I don't mean the types of simulations designed to make war exciting, like
most video games. No, I mean simulations that will capture the near view of war, the
details that we never think of, the mistakes, the confusion, pain, in many cases the
boredom inherent in military actions. Something that would convert sterile phrases, like
"collateral damage" into vivid experiences of a young girl caught in a crossfire.
You could think of this as a "Scared Straight" program for world leaders, if you're
familiar with the programs in which young children are taken for a day or even overnight
into a jail, to understand better the near view of jail. You can also think of this as
potentially a first step in implementing a proposal that comes from
Erich Maria Remarque's book All Quiet on the Western Front. A character in that book
effectively argues that all the Ministers and Generals of the worlds' countries should
come together in a boxing ring and, as I heard it put once, slug it out with bags of
manure. And then, whoever is left on his feet, that country is declared the winner. Now I
don't know that we're ever going to get there, but Virtual Worlds have lots of uses, and
one of them is to bring the "far" near to us, and, hopefully, we end up with better
decisions. So on this November 11th, that's what I'm hoping for.
Next week Metanomics welcomes Tyler Cohen, author of the book Create Your Own
Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World. Among other things, the book
emphasizes the positive aspects of the autistic thinking style, which is characterized, in
Tyler's view, by careful attention to ordering of disordered information. So I think this
show will be of interest to the many Second Life residents who find themselves along
the autism spectrum. Tyler's also the author of one of the most popular economics
blogs, Marginal Revolution and, as far as I can tell, is one of the World's few remaining
polymaths. There isn't much that Tyler can't talk about intelligently and bring a new view
to us so be sure to come armed with plenty of questions.
Don't forget you can see over 80, I guess actually almost 90 hours now, of Metanomics
in our archives at metanomics.net and on iTunes. Bye bye. See you next week.
Transcribed by: http://www.hiredhand.com