Technology, Thoughts & Trinkets

Touring the digital through type

Tag: data processing systems

Review: Delete – The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

Viktor Mayer-Schonberger’s new book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (2009) is a powerful effort to rethink basic principles of computing that threaten humanity’s epistemological nature. In essence, he tries get impress upon us the importance of adding ‘forgetfulness’ to digital data collection process. The book is masterfully presented. It draws what are arguably correct theoretical conclusions (we need to get a lot better at deleting data to avoid significant normative, political, and social harms) while drawing absolutely devastatingly incorrect technological solutions (key: legislating ‘forgetting’ into all data formats and OSes). In what follows, I sketch the aim of the book, some highlights, and why the proposed technological solutions are dead wrong.

The book is concerned with digital systems defaulting to store data ad infinitum (barring ‘loss’ of data on account of shifting proprietary standards). The ‘demise of forgetting’ in the digital era is accompanied by significant consequences: positively, externalizing memory to digital systems preserves information for future generations and facilitates ease of recalls through search. Negatively, digital externalizations dramatically shift balances of power and obviate temporal distances. These latter points will become the focus of the text, with Mayer-Schonberger arguing that defaulting computer systems to either delete or degrade data over time can rebalance the challenges facing temporal obviations that presently accompany digitization processes. Continue reading

Holistic and Pragmatic Approaches to Privacy Theorization

theoryandpracticeImmanuel Kant’s essay “On the Common Saying: ‘This May be True in Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice'” argues that theory is central to understanding the world around us and that, moreover, attempts to say that ‘theory doesn’t apply to the world as such’ are generally misguided. Part of the reason that Kant can so firmly advocate that theory and reality are co-original emerge from his monological rationalism, but at the same time time we see him argue that the clearest way to bring theory and practice into alignment is with more theory – rather than adopting ‘parsimonious’ explanations of the world we would be better off to develop rigorous and detailed accounts of the world.

Parsimony seems to be a popular term in the social sciences; it lets researchers develop concise theories that can be applied to particular situations, lets them isolate and speak about particular variables, and lends itself to broad(er) public accessibility of the theory in question. At the same time, theorists critique many such parsimonious accounts because they commonly fail to offer full explanations of social phenomena!

The complexity of privacy issues in combination with a desire for parsimony has been a confounding issue for privacy theorists. Nailing down what ‘privacy’ actually refers to has been, and continues to be, a nightmarish task insofar as almost every definition has some limiting factor. This problem is (to my mind) compounded when you enter online, or digital, environments where developing a complete understanding of how data flows across systems, what technical languages’ demands underlie data processing systems, and developing a comprehensive account of confidentiality and trust, are all incredibly challenging and yet essential for theorization. This is especially true when we think of a packet as being like post card (potentially one with its content encrypted) – in theory anyone could be capturing and analyzing packet streams and data that is held on foreign servers.

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