The Virtue Of Hitting 'Delete,' Permanently Digital technology has provided a steady aid for people in their quest to remember virtually everything. But author Viktor Mayer-Schonberger argues that now is the time to reintroduce our ability to forget. He talks about his book, Delete, and why forgetting is essential.
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The Virtue Of Hitting 'Delete,' Permanently

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The Virtue Of Hitting 'Delete,' Permanently

The Virtue Of Hitting 'Delete,' Permanently

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

For thousands of years we humans have developed ever-better technologies to help overcome our fallible memories: language, painting, writing, photography, libraries, ways to record, store and retrieve information. Digital technology and global networks are just the latest steps on that long path, but they are so much better than their predecessors that Viktor Mayer-Schonberger argues that for the first time in history the default is now to remember rather than forget.

Remember that embarrassing picture you posted on Facebook 10 years ago? Your teenage DUI arrest? What came up when you Googled sex crimes and which entries you found interesting enough to click on? Today, we consider the consequences of indelible, perfect searchable memory and hear an argument to reintroduce our ability to forget.

Later in the program, why Bob Elston took his seven-year-old to lunch at Hooters and the response after he blogged about it. But first, the tension between the human impulse to record everything and our individual and collective need to forget. What do we need to remember? Who decides? When is it better to forget?

Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Viktor Mayer-Schonberger joins us now from the University of California, Berkeley's School of Journalism. He's director of the Information and Innovation Policy Research Center at the National University of Singapore. He taught at Harvard before that. He's the author of "Delete: The Value of Forgetting in the Digital Age." Thanks very much for being with us.

Professor VIKTOR MAYER-SCHONBERGER (University of California, Berkeley): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And there's one word in your book where you describe a dystopia where everything is observed or might be, everything is recorded and stored and ready to recall at any time. Tell us about Panopticon.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Well, Neal, Panopticon is an idea that Jeremy Bentham had in the 19th century. You were thinking about a modern prison. And he said, well, why don't we imagine the prison in which the prisoners don't know when the prison guards watch them? The prison guards can watch them at any time but the prisoners have no idea when. So the prisoners would have to assume that they are always watched and thereby would be punished for illegal behavior. And so we would have behavioral compliance through total surveillance.

Now, what we have on the Internet through perfect digital storage is not just a digital Panopticon, it is a temporal Panopticon, in which what we say and do today might be held against us in the distance future - five years, 10 years, 15 years down the road.

CONAN: And that same effect at behavior modification, if you will, you describe it as the chilling effect of perfect memory.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Yes, indeed. The chilling effect is a well-known principle in constitutional law - when we start self-censoring ourselves because we fear retribution if we would say the truth of what is on our mind. That of course impoverishes public debate tremendously. Now, digital storage does worse because it impoverishes the public debate by making us fear not what we - what our words would do today but what they would do to us if they were listened to or evaluated 10 years down the road.

CONAN: And as we see what happens to politicians - I don't how closely you follow politics in this country - but there's a race for governor in Virginia and a thesis, a master's thesis...


CONAN: ...written by one of the candidates has emerged and said, wait a minute, this is what you believed as a grown man of 35 when you wrote this. This is a terrible thing. Nevertheless, you know, this is a constant. This is called opposition research and going back to find what somebody said, well, in grade school, as far back as that.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: That's right. And we are used to that with respect to public figures in this country and many other countries in the world. But what we can do today with digital tools and with stuff like Flickr and YouTube is - as well as with Google and Bing - is to research everybody that we know, our neighbors, and then put perhaps troubling information that we find up on the Web for everybody to see.

CONAN: The first thing a lot of people do if they're going out on a date with somebody is to look up their Facebook page or Google them to see what they're about.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Right. But that is a difficult situation in itself because if we Google somebody and find something that happened to them or that they did 15 years ago, how do we evaluate that currently? It might have no relevance to the person we're going to meet on that date anymore, that, for example, 15 years ago they got a drunk driver's citation. But we might be suddenly concerned or think about - and a potential employer who is vetting candidates. Suddenly that employer knows that there was something in the past of a potential applicant. Can that be forgotten in the application and the evaluation process? No, because of liability issues, of legal issues. If something happens then later on, then the employer would be told - you knew, why didn't you act on it?

CONAN: Or should have known.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Or should have known. And so therefore there is a strong presumption that what information you can retrieve you have to retrieve, and what you retrieve you have to act on.

CONAN: You tell a cautionary tale of an academic in Canada who wrote a paper many years ago describing his experience with LSD, many years before that, a guy who routinely crossed the border into the United States.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Yes, and then the immigration officer Googled him and found out about the article from 2001 and then in the article this guy stated that he had taken LSD 40 years earlier. And he was barred from entry into the United States forever. That's an unforgetting and an unforgiving society.

CONAN: We're talking about the value of forgetting today. And we're talking with Viktor Mayer-Schonberger. His new book is called "Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age." If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us: What is important to remember? Who decides, what should we learn to forget, 800-989-8255? Email, And one of the things you raise, Viktor, is this idea of societal forgiveness that after a while and certain crimes, your records are expunged, that America, a lot of the idea has always been the country of second, third, fourth chances.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Absolutely. That's why the Pilgrim fathers came over from Europe in the first place, to leave behind the stifling structures of caste, of social level, of religion in Europe, and to come to the United States to start afresh. And if that didn't work out, they could go further west and start afresh anew. We have given up on that idea, and I think that's an impoverishment of our society.

CONAN: Let's get John on the line. John calling us from Scottsdale, Arizona.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, Neal.


JOHN: Great program. Yeah, I have a question here which is in mind maybe the flip-side of what's being discussed here, which is the value of - or the ownership of private information. So information that's known on or about me, for example, if I have a disgruntled girlfriend that takes a photo of me and later on posts it online, who owns that? Same thing for corporations that can amass digital information about me without my consent and make a profit and resell it without me having any control on that. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on that.

CONAN: Well, I guess this comes down on both legal and moral issues. If you consented to the photograph and it was on her camera, well, I think you may be out of luck, at least legally, Viktor.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Yes, very likely so. The United States doesn't have a federal comprehensive information privacy law at the present. Other nations, particularly in Europe, do, but that really is linked to a fundamental power dimension of digital information and digital storage.

The moment we share information with somebody else, that person, if he or she has the ability to store that information for a very long period of time, has some informational power over us. And we might have forgotten all about it, but it might come back to haunt us.

CONAN: On the corporate side that John was asking about, though, that is something that a lot of people find a little scarier, when people can aggregate information about individuals and find out a great deal about them.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Yes, and there are bureaus out that, for $20, $30, you can research a person and get up to 2,000 data points of an individual that have been drawn from numerous different sources. That's quite concerning, I think.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Daniel(ph). Daniel's calling us from Buffalo. Daniel, are you there?

DANIEL (Caller): I'm here.

CONAN: Go ahead, you're on the air.

DANIEL: Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well.

DANIEL: Well, I just wanted to say how this could work to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others. In my case, I was searching for a job for quite some time and found one that seemed almost too good to be true. So just on a whim, I decided to Google the boss's name, and found out he was a three-time convicted scam artist from Las Vegas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DANIEL: So it allowed me to quit the job before either going to jail for helping him scam or being scammed myself.

CONAN: In that case, it worked out to be a good thing. Congratulations, Daniel. I hope you've found another job since.

DANIEL: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And you're not suggesting, Viktor, that this information is not useful in some respects or that this amazing capability that we have is not a boon in many aspects.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Not at all. I want us to use the technologies that we have. I want us to use the Internet to share as much information as possible. I also want us to keep important information. I want the media to operate perfectly freely and to have digital archives available.

There's no question about that. So we will still be able to find the three-time convict on the Internet. What I want is to bring back, to the individual level, reflection and choice. Give us a chance to choose what we want to remember and what we want to forget.

CONAN: Yet some people say, you know, you talk about the societal value, the old quote: Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Well, not necessarily because forgetting actually plays an important role in our human mind. It helps us purge our mind from irrelevant information. It lets us get rid of detail that is unwanted. It helps us generalize, abstract, see the forest rather than the trees and therefore rather than being tethered to an ever-more-detailed past helps us act and evaluate and live in the present. And I think that's a good thing.

CONAN: And we think of some of the great losses to humankind - the destruction wasn't one fire - but the destruction eventually of the Library of Alexandria and those irreplaceable documents.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Absolutely, and what I want is to have - give us individually, give us individually, as well as societally, the choice to keep and to remember, as well as to discard and to forget. And certainly we would want to have kept the information in the Library of Alexandria, as well as many other historical archives. There's no question about that.

CONAN: What Viktor Mayer-Schonberger is talking about, however, is that we think about what is right now the indiscriminate keeping, perfectly, forever, indelibly of almost all information forever.

If you're interested in joining the conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Anybody who's ever had a middle-school picture of themselves tagged on Facebook knows the Web has a very long memory. Viktor Mayer-Schonberger is with us. In his book, "Delete," he argues maybe it's time to reintroduce our capacity to forget.

We mentioned the case of a man named Andrew Feldmar, who was barred entry into the U.S. by a U.S.-Canadian border guard who Googled his name and found an academic article from 2001 in which he'd mentioned taking LSD many years earlier. To read about Feldmar's collision with digital memory, you can go to our Web site at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we want to hear from you today. What do we need to remember? Who decides when is it better to forget? 800-989-8255. Email us, And you can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, I wanted to ask you about something you write about. You argue the default is now to remember rather than forget. You actually argue: With the abundance of cheap storage, it is simply no longer economical to even decide whether to remember or forget. Forgetting the three seconds it takes to choose has become too expensive for people to use.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: That's right. Take your digital camera. If you take a couple of digital pictures and went to upload it to your computer or to your hard drive, then you can either select the pictures that you want to upload, or you can upload by default all the pictures that you took from a digital camera. Most people just use that default and with good reason. Because just the two, three seconds that it takes to go through individual pictures and to decide whether to keep them or not, using average wages of American citizens, would be too costly. It's much cheaper to just buy an extra hard disk.

CONAN: And most of us in fact feel to harried to make that decision. I'll decide later, and of course we never do.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: That's right. That's right. We never do. So the suggestion that I have is let's decide when we are storing something for how long we want to store it. It's as easy as that. If we want to keep something for 100 years or 500 years, that's fine. If we want to keep something for two weeks only or for a couple of days because it's ephemeral, and we really don't need it for a long period of time, then we should have that possibility, as well.

CONAN: There's a fascinating part of the book in which you argue, going back to our previous analog technology, that in fact there was forgetting built in to analog technology. Everybody remembers when you had a cassette tape or something like that. If you got it from a store, the album sounded pretty good. If you copied it, it sounded less good, and if you copied that, that sounded even less good. Copies deteriorated over time, and indeed, the more times you played the original, it deteriorated.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Indeed. So over time, these analog memories would fade. Similarly with a book, if you read a book over and over and over again, eventually it might disintegrate, and so the memory begins to fade. When you have a picture out in the light for a long period of time, it begins to fade. That's very different in a digital age, where digital bits don't fade over time. They can be copied. They can be renewed. They can be backed up much more easily.

CONAN: So in the analog age, we had to make very specific decisions to preserve certain things because they were important, as opposed to in the digital age, we just save everything.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: That's exactly right. In the analog age, we had to make a choice, and the choice was: Is this important enough for us to remember, because remembering was always associated with a little bit of time, a little bit of cost, a little bit of effort. Today, it's the other way around. Forgetting today in the digital age is associated with time, effort and cost, and that's troubling. I think we should reverse that balance.

CONAN: Let's go next to Eric(ph). Eric's with us from San Pablo in California.

ERIC (Caller): Hi, thank you. Yeah, I just wanted to comment on the topic that - the whole idea of being able to forget in contrast to things being brought up with Internet technology is really an important human phenomenon, and there's actually an English theologian who wrote a book in which he points out that even God forgets. God forgets our failings once they're forgiven. And so the whole notion of being able to forgive and to forget really is, I think, supportive of, you know, good psychological health and spiritual health, too.

CONAN: One of the…

ERIC: And maybe - I'm sorry?

CONAN: I was just going to say, one of the areas that, most interestingly, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger talks about is the criminal justice system, which not only never forgets, but, you argue, Viktor, takes things like fingerprints completely out of context.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: It does take fingerprints out of context, as well as DNA information. I mean, if we consider how many states in the United States are actually collecting information from DNA from victims of crimes, as well as from witnesses of crimes, and then add it to the DNA databases, and then even if the case has long been closed, the DNA information stays there. And what happens is that new cases, cold cases, cold DNA information is run against the DNA database with the witnesses and victim information in there. So suddenly, if you're a victim of a crime or a witness of a crime, you might become a future suspect. And you can't eradicate that.

ERIC: (unintelligible)

CONAN: Eric, do you have any personal experience in this regard?

ERIC: No, not really, just, you know, it came to mind, you know, with the topic the book I'd read really talked about, just the importance of being able to forget in the right context and move on with life, and yeah…

CONAN: All right, Eric, thanks very much.

ERIC: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Now, let's go next to - this is Tristan(ph), Tristan with us from Mansfield, Massachusetts.

TRISTAN (Caller): Hi, gentlemen, how are you?

CONAN: Very good, thanks.

TRISTAN: Good. I wanted to - I think it's rather in a similar vein to your previous caller. I think one of the things that's really changed perhaps as a result of the Internet is our ability to put things in context. And in this case specifically, I think that we as a society no longer think it's okay for people to change their minds. You know, you think about the political candidates who may have taken one position early in their career, 10, 15, 20 years, ago. They learned more over time, and when they come out with a new position, they are raked over the coals because they once said something differently. It's not okay for them to say I've learned more, I know more, I understand it better, I've changed my mind, and here it is.

CONAN: It's something you talk about even in a broader sense, Viktor, in the terms of what you look something up in an analog archive, it comes along with a lot of other information that you discover along the way. It's a pretty clunky process compared to a search engine, but nevertheless, you find context for this particular fact, this particular opinion is what Tristan is talking about. Whereas you look it up on the Web, and all you see is just that quote taken out of context.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: That's right. Digital information, particularly stored in digital storage devices and retrieved, for example, through the Internet really decontextualizes itself a lot. We see it without the situation, the context, the time it was said. And forgetting, on the other hand, human forgetting, helps us evolve and grow and change as human beings.

One of the sad parts of Google is if you Google somebody, then you get a composite picture, like a puzzle, made out of a lot of elements, little puzzle pieces. But the person that emerges in this composite picture never was, because what you see is elements from 15 years ago and from 10 years ago and from 10 days ago. And what is taken out of the picture is really the time dimension, namely that we all evolve and change over time, and that I find troubling.

CONAN: Tristan, your - interesting remark, except for your suggestion that politicians are actually human beings.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TRISTAN: That's not open for debate, I guess.

CONAN: I suppose not. Thanks very much for the phone call.

TRISTAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. This from Scott(ph) in South Bend. One of the tricks I learned years ago with the advent of social media sites is to keep multiple identities online. For sites like Facebook, I have one with my real name, with only bland, office-friendly information on it, no information that would challenge people's politics or religious leanings. My other account is the real me and has a nonsensical pseudonym. It is the only way. Of course, a little schizophrenic, too.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: It is. Multiple identities might help, but it also requires effort and the time to maintain multiple identities and to not write in one identity what he actually wanted to say in another identity. It seems to me that it helps, but it's quite a chore, as well.

CONAN: When I taught a class - this an email from John(ph). When I taught a class using Facebook for classroom management, I made sure to teach my students the importance of making sure they put positive content online. Granted, I taught students in the field of IT, but I wanted to make sure they knew the dangers and had opportunities to take advantage of the Internet rather than being taken advantage of. If we allow information to be deleted, it might be hard to get the message of positive content across.

Well, that raises the question: How do we arrange to delete things? Because the Web - as you mentioned, various engines snap pictures of things even if we try to delete them from our Facebook page.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Right. I mean, there's a number of possible approaches. One that I suggested in the book as a metaphor to kind of energize us is to have expiration dates for information. That is to associate the date with a piece of information, let's say, a picture. And once that date is reached, the information is deleted. Entering an expiration date really gives us human beings a chance to reflect on how long I want that information to be kept, as well as some meaningful choice, namely to enter a date until which that information will remain relevant. Of course, one could change their expiration date at any given point in time and so forth.

Now, how would we want this to be implemented? We could see it on an individual level, but also on a commercial level by companies taking this up both because of consumer pressure and market pressure, and because they think it's the right thing to do. It enhances information quality out there. I've seen some applications out there. I've seen some companies already do that. has a way by which you can delete with a click of a button your search query history, for example. That's quite helpful. is a company that you can upload photos and files, too, and add an expiration date to. And that's quite helpful. Certainly, more choices available there than on Flickr. That's all heartening to me because it seems that markets are responding and people are responding.

CONAN: Yet, I wonder, isn't there a human impulse? You describe a quite famous man, a computer inventor who goes around and records more and more, in more and more depth and detail, almost every activity of his daily life. And that may be an extreme example. But isn't it human nature going back to the invention of cuneiform to make records, to compile records, to have more and more details about more and more things.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Oh, absolutely. And there's a clear reason why, because we biologically forget. So we want to overcome that, at least for those things that are important for us.

CONAN: Export our memory, which is a fascinating phrase you use.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Right. Right. Export, externalize our memory. But I don't want to undo that. All that I want to do is to add a little more cost, that is a little more time and effort to remembering and forgetting a little bit easier, so that is not automatically the default, the bias built in to the digital tools that we use to always remember.

CONAN: And is there any technological solution to this? Is it a law that's going to have to be approved? Is it a societal change you're talking about?

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: We could have all kinds of approaches, and different societies might differ on that. The Europeans might opt for laws. We here in this country might opt for a more market-paced approach with some technological help to let us on an individual level reflect and choose. And that's perfectly fine. I think what we need to do is to really think hard about how we can revive and reintroduce forgetting in the digital age.

And another possibility is the digital shoebox in the attic that you can still store information, put it in a digital shoebox. But this information would take a little longer to be retrieved, much like it would take some time for you to go up in the attic and retrieve your shoebox and bring it down. The advantage of that is that you don't accidentally stumble over older and more irrelevant information.

CONAN: Our guest is Viktor Mayer-Schonberger. His book is "Delete: The Virtue Of Forgetting in the Digital Age." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's talk with Jacqueline(ph). Jacqueline with us from Paris, California.

JACQUELINE (Caller): Hi. I was just calling to make a comment on - I was in jail once and that was, like, back in '98 when I was 18 years old. And now I have a 13-year-old daughter and somebody has posted my picture when I was in jail. Now, I do think that it's good to have advanced technology, but at the same time it affects lots of those women or men that are trying to move on with their lives and forget their past. So…

CONAN: Something in the order of youthful indiscretion?


CONAN: Yeah. And that's - those are hard to escape, Viktor.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: They are. They are. And I think what we need to be aware of is that we need to give people a second chance over time, if they have behaved well after a transgression. And if we are somewhat certain that they won't do it again, why not forget and thereby forgive?

JACQUELINE: Well, I believe that also because I do hear that people say once they do one thing, you know, they're always going to do it or they're never going to change.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JACQUELINE: But that is just society. And as for myself, I am a mother of five children now. I am 29. And when I was 18, I was with the wrong people and, yes, I made a mistake. But honestly, I do think - thank God that I did go to jail because that opened my mind and my eyes, you know, a lot of things in society and how people are.

CONAN: And you're afraid at this point if you've five kids, they're eventually going to see this picture.

JACQUELINE: Yes. Because I have a 13-year-old and she loves being on the computer. Now, I cannot tell her, don't be in the computer only for my mistake.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JACQUELINE: So, in, you know, other people that did wrong by putting my picture up on the Internet, you know, that was wrong for them to do that. But, you know, like I'm saying, that was the past and now I am a very different person to where I was when I was younger. And, you know, I - I just don't know how, you know, how to change that.

CONAN: I'm not sure that there is a way at this moment, Jacqueline. I'm not sure if technology works in your favor.

JACQUELINE: Yes. You're right.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: And the problem is that there are companies out there who might be able to help you and take the picture down, but they do this as a commercial service. And so, they charge a lot of money for that.

CONAN: Jacqueline, thanks very much. Good luck.

JACQUELINE: Thank you very much. Thank you.

CONAN: And I just want to ask you, there have been times in our history, in the past when we have tried to figure out ways to forget certain things or certain categories of things and - these were often accompanied by pitchforks and torches, book burning and that sort of thing. That is an aspect of this we have to be careful of too.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Oh, absolutely. I would hate to have these times revived in any form or shape. I do want to us to take advantage of the digital tools around us. I do want us to be able to remember what we want to remember both on an individual as well as a society level. That's fundamental to us being human. But I also want us to be able to forget and that's as much about us and about being human as remembering is. So we really need to find the balance again.

CONAN: Viktor Mayer-Schonberger joined us from the University of California at Berkeley. He's the author of the book "Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in a Digital Age." Thanks very much for being with us.

Prof. MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Thank you for having me.

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