Moral panic: computer memory is bad for you!

The excellent CBC Radio show, blog, and podcast known as Spark has just posted host Nora Young’s  long interview with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Mayer-Schönberger believes cheap digital storage has encouraged us, often unwittingly, to store more information than is good for us. In the interview, he offers two examples:

  • Some people with photographic memory have trouble making decisions, because memories of bad outcomes from previous decisions paralyze them.
  • A Canadian psychotherapist, Andrew Feldmar, was permanently barred from entering the United States because a US border guard, using Google, discovered a 10-year-old article he had written describing his LSD use 30 years earlier.

Mayer-Schönberger follows a hoary tradition of moral panic that seems to greet every new communications technology. Carolyn Marvyn has documented the dire forecasts of moral depravity that followed the invention of the telephone. Prophesies of moral decay are often embraced by traditional media that feel (and probably are) threatened by the new technology, so I guess you could say that in interviewing Mayer-Schönberger, Spark is, at least in this perhaps uncharacteristic instance, fitting into this tradition as well.

Mayer-Schönberger is guilty of category error. He conflates memory with storage. Substitute the word “library” for “Internet,” and by his logic, we would soon start burning books. People with photographic memories may indeed have a problem with indecision, but that is a problem of human psychology, not library or Internet storage.

Dr. Feldmar’s story is a terrible one, but the problem lies in witless application of over-broad US immigration rules, not Google. It makes no more sense to condemn Google for this episode than it would to condemn the telephone or the newspaper, had they served as conduits for the guard’s information.

I think the idea of automatically deleting information (including photographs, articles, emails, etc.) because thier reappearance someday might harm us in ways we cannot foresee is chilling.

Spark will air an abbreviated version of Young’s interview with Mayer-Schönberger Sunday at 1.