November 01, 2011

Should Information Have an Expiration Date?

We should give our information delete dates, says Mayer-Schönberger.

Should information be finite? Should it cease to exist after a certain point?

On the face of it, an expiration date on information sounds like a wild idea. But that’s exactly what Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance and regulation at Oxford University, says our society needs.

Mayer-Schönberger argues that for most of human time, “forgetting has been the norm and remembering the exception.” Our new ability to remember things perfectly, and in perpetuity, is having profound effects on us individually and as a society, he says.

In a nutshell: “Do we want a future that is forever unforgiving because it is unforgetting?”

It’s his suggested solution that has caused much discussion. He proposes, he writes, “an expiration date for information to confront us with the finiteness of memory, and to prompt us to understand (and appreciate) that information also has a lifespan.”

In a recent lecture at the London School of Economics (free to download), Mayer-Schönberger talked about his concept “to establish mechanisms that ease forgetting in the digital age, and that make remembering just a tiny bit more strenuous.” Jump to 43:00 for this part of the conversation.

How would it work? Here he is, at 43:45: “Whenever we want to store information, for example on Facebook or in the cloud, we are prompted to enter not just, say, the name of the file and the location of storage, but also a date until which we want the information to be stored. Once the date has been reached, the information is deleted from the system.” We could edit those dates at any time, he adds.

Additional details are in his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton University Press, 2009).

What do you think? Would you prefer your information to have a “sell-by” date?

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