back to article Is data overload killing off human initiative?

Delete – The Virtue of Forgetting in a Digital Age is one of those high premise pseudo-techy works that appeals to the chattering classes – not least because it beguiles them with a false sense of "doing technology". As modern technology has enhanced our ability to remember everything, no matter how inconsequential, the time …


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  1. Anton Ivanov

    Spot on

    Company legal and intellectual property departments have spotted that long ago (though it has yet to filter to the UK). Nearly all high tech companies in the US and several other countries operate a policy where IP by other companies and their patents must not be discussed during the development process. So in fact, these companies operate a partial data abstinence regime when working on new areas and let the lawyers sort out any "incursions" into other people's IP later.

    Similarly, nearly universally deep industry state digging, vendor feature digging or current product digging has never lead to anything new, innovative and forward thinking. At best it is a "deploy new feature once and stay locked in forever". At worst (which is the usual case) it is a "deploy a new feature once and stay magesticaly screwed once the vendor obsoletes it".

    There is a finite and rather small space between "knowledge of the subject matter" and "no, I will not go and dig deep here" where creativity lays. Going either side can kill it straight away. So even if you "know the stuff" it is sometimes essential to operate in a "do not recall", "temporarily ignore" or "temporarily forget" mode to get something new done.

  2. Mark Randall

    Metal Gear

    Correct me if I am wrong, but didn't Raiden and Solid Snake already stop this mass deletion by destroying Arsenal Gear in Metal Gear Solid 2?

  3. Fazal Majid

    The French government proposed to do just that

    Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the French cabinet secretary for the digital economy suggested exactly this one week ago when she talked up a charter to establish a "right to forget" applicable to social network sites such as Facebook. French citizens already have a right of access and correction to databases with personally identifiable information, this goes further to suggest a right of deletion.

  4. Paul 87

    Even more so...

    .. the "forever" nature of digital data means that we are also denied the ability to learn from our mistakes. Instead we must be ever vigilant and never make the mistakes in the first place. This kind of thinking leads to a caution that makes us incredibly two faced and constrained and can only damage people psychologically.

  5. Frozen Ghost

    Don't delete, ignore

    Maybe the solution is more human than technological, only in the last few years has all this digital information really become available so it is still treated with the same attitude as before.

    10 years ago there would have been so little information available in the public domain that finding drunken pictures or articles about LSD would have possibly indicated the tip of an iceberg and would have been treated accordingly.

    Now they are simply applying the same reasoning to an internet search - with time they should get used to having large amounts of information and be able to logically prioritise the important bits - otherwise there will be a significant shortage of teachers in the coming years!

  6. Graham Marsden

    "The Virtue of Forgetting in a Digital Age"

    Nice title, but a better one would be "The Virtue of Authorities Not Behaving Like a Bunch of Narrow-Minded Idiots in a Digital Age"!

  7. Golodh

    The real problems

    are known as "stupidity" and hypocrisy and have little to do with "information overload".

    I mean stupidity both on the individual level but mainly as part of a group of people. The arrest of the academic who wrote about LSD is a good example.

    Then there is hypocrisy. As in black-listing someone from teaching because she had pictures of herself drank and dressed up as a pirate on-line. Practically every single student gets drunk at one time or another (you want to be a bit careful around ones that don't), and if you follow everyone in a sensitive social position (e.g. teacher, politician) around with a camera 24-hrs a day, chances are you'll be able to snap some pics that will end that person's career then and there. From TV preachers to politicians to beauty queens to profesors.

    Hypocrisy is extremely deep-seated however. In highly litigious environments like the USA, hiring someone who just *might* be more of a risk in their job than someone totally anonymous carries a heavy financial penalty: the risk of being sued afterwards if the person concerned ever does anything wrong that would allow a lawyer to argue that the evidence you had available might have have prompted a more thorough scrutiny. Of course for 99% of all jobs _nobody_ is going to take the trouble to thoroughly screen a candidate, to hiring managers conveniently reject anyone out of hand on basis of an unfavourable Google search.Quick, efficient, and it doesn't leave a trace. Nobody cares if the rejected candidate is or is not suitable, it's all about managing risks.

    People have come up with various defence mechanisms against that kind of venal sillyness.

    The most important one is making sure that people don't get to see what you're up to in your personal life, and you don't enlighten them. It's the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in optima forma. The main pillar beneath this strategy is called "privacy": do your dirty stuff where strangers can't see it. You can let your friends see it because they know a lot more about you and are able to place what they do see in context. Strangers don't and can't.

    Unfortunately that selective availability of information goes out of the window on the Internet. So yes, it's very dangerous to have *any* kind of information that isn't meant for public consumption out anywhere beyond your direct control. Including websites that are supposedly "guarded through passwords".

    And no, "deleting" things isn't a good solution. Simply because there are tons of dirty laundry that organizations (companies, governments, evangelists, churches and commercial pseudo-churches) don't want you to know about, even if it's important to you. Making it easy to delete stuff about you that you don't like will automatically destroy the openness that the Internet brought us, and that's too high a price to pay.

    So, too bad about those people who saw their careers destroyed by youthful indiscretion followed by hypocrisy from employers or their peers. They will learn. Perhaps society at large will learn too, you never know.

    On the other hand there are numerous people who would really, really like to help you eliminate the scruffiness of the current internet. Every company who would rather have a locked-down internet service rather than the current free-wheeling net. They are only too happy to oblige, kill the freedom of expression on the Net, and come up with something like Compuserve was.

  8. Scott 9

    Two sides of the coin

    There's some circumstances where dredging up old information can be useful, such as in criminal cases (major crimes) notable historical events, and my pet favorite, politicians so we know who these people really are behind their slogans.

    It would be nice to have a formal delete on the web, especially for people who've had problems or made mistakes in life and want to move on. But I don't see that happening, employers and the legal community are if anything becoming more stringent on what they can find and how long it can be held against someone.

    The web simply doesn't work like real life, where what you gossip about on the bus isn't likely to come back to haunt you. I've run into too many people who do stupid things like have the same user name for every website they go to--especially something simple like their initials or a real life nickname, and think no one will ever clue in. I've been surprised and saddened a few times to see the mask revealed at who/what someone really is.

    About the only way to have some modicum of protection from your own past is to have multiple personas where you watch what you say. So in one forum you're free to express your political views, in another to hang out with old friends, and in yet another your work persona. But even that isn't always safe, especially if you have work friends in your circle.

    The simplest ways to ensure this "delete" is to manually find it on the web and have it deleted (most social networks and forums allow deleting posts), or use restraint and never put anything controversial up in the first place.

  9. jake Silver badge


    There is no such thing as "human data overload".

    There is, however, such a thing as sheeple who have issues with the reality that flies in the face of whatever pre-conditioned life experience that they were brought up with, thus leading them to reject the concept of "I just kicked you in the shin", based primarily on the fact that "good people don't kick each other in the shin", despite the bruise that is currently forming.

    That has got to be the longest sentence I've ever written. Overload? Maybe. Apologies :-)

  10. Steen Hive

    No Problem!

    Didn't Orwell have something to say about the rewriting of history?

    If it's "forgotten", history can be anything you want it to be at a particular moment. Doubleplusungood.

    Of course it makes for the easy manipulation of people who act on information used out of context, which is probably the whole idea.

  11. Ken Hagan Gold badge
    Black Helicopters

    A "delete" on history?

    I can think of a few people who would have *loved* that. Back in their day, mind, they had to rely on book-burning sessions and incarceration/extermination of those troublesome individuals who remembered stuff that they ought to have forgotten.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    The ability to filter information...

    ... data overload?

    The body and mind are bombarded every waking moment by our environment. The sheer volume of thought processing required to deal with our environment necessitates the ability to 'filter' information for value. You don't count the white lines on a road when driving (at least I hope you don't), but your aware they are there.

    The same applies to data. You selectively filter what you really need.

    Your success at filtering is directly related to whether you consider you have data overload or not.

    The brain is more than powerful enough for this task, it's a question of education, organisation and indeed, the ability to forget.

    Regarding peoples careers being stalled due to online evidence of past nefarious activity - that's down to management. Before posting that photo of yourself in an uncompromising position, consider whether it's worth the laugh or not. Make it a private post. Don't post it ... etc.

    As for other people posting about you, the same applies. Don't let your sensitive information out into the wild.

    Far more dangerous to careers than data mining is sending that ranting angry email. Once you hit the send button, you may as well forthwith refer to it as the "oooh fuck" button.

    More people have been undermined by impulse emailing than having the online dirt dug up on them.

    Conclusion: I won't be buying this book.

  13. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Dynamic Neural Algorithm

    "the same user name for every website they go to-" ...... certainly makes it easier for you to think that you know someone, but you only get to know what they want you to know some cases:-)

    Hell, the cynics will swear to you that you can't believe anything a politician says, so why should you believe anything which was said by anyone else in the past and hold it against them.

    Oh, and people can change into whatever they want to be and the really smart ones will always be constantly changing/evolving/growing. It is a Nightmare Intelligence Field too but a Big Easy Dream Area for White Knights

  14. Ivor 1

    No "evidence" of God.

    ".........the ability to live in the present, without fear that every single action might be lifted up and scrutinised out of context at some long distant future date, provides us with freedom to act."

    What if we rephrase this as:

    ".........the ability to live in the present, without fear that every single action might be lifted up and used to judge us, provides us with freedom to act."

    Imagine how we would live as terrified puppets if an ever-present God sat amongst us. Maybe he hides himself away because even a hint of his presence would terrify us into submission?

    Not exactly much of a relationship, assuming he wishes for such a thing?

  15. Anonymous Coward

    Too late

    People worry about the government clamping down and turning us into mindless drones, sorry but the mere fact that "da net" never forgets and never will, means that you will have to behave from the second you are born, to the second you die, praying too that your parents behaved too, their parents, ad infinitum.

    One tiny mistake in the family line and tough, another door closes to you, for something you may have had no say or control in.

  16. alphaxion


    The problem with never putting up controversial data yourself, is that someone else can do it too and tag you in them all.

    It might be done maliciously or it might be innocently shared. Either way, the protection needs to be made where, unless it was a serious crime, companies should not be allowed to discriminate against a person for their perfectly legal out of work lives. We're getting too close to companies having far too much say on what you can or cannot do simply because you work there.

    By all means, exercise a little decorum and common sense (such as not going out dressed as a nazi while out on the town for example), but a company should not control their employees to such a degree as we are seeing.

    And this is where government is supposed to exist, to ensure there is a counter power fighting on our side (I know, nieve concept now adays, unless you happen to be a business with plenty of money to slosh around and lucrative board places to offer).

  17. Notas Badoff

    Remember small towns?

    Well, small towns remember you! Forever, or nearly so. "Jimmy Smallwood? Hoo, after blowing up the sheriff's trashcans he couldn't drive a mile without getting stopped for something! Had to move outta town to keep a job."

    Towns are famous for their 'memories'. Now, we don't have to find an elder to get the lowdown on someone. Exactly what has changed?

    Years ago two students on a train dissing a professor they'd had. Seated behind them? A fellow professor. Distance from university? 5100 miles (8200km).

    We are now all in a small town, populated with very big ears and eyes. Nothing has changed. If your illusion is that you're anonymous, welcome to reality.

    C'mon, circumspection isn't circumcision! You don't lose as much as all that and it really isn't painful.

  18. SirTainleyBarking
    Paris Hilton

    Wakey Wakey

    If you really are dumb enough to go onto facebook and post those "Oh so funny" pictures of you and the goat, you really deserve all you get.

    If somebody googled me In Real Life they would find absolutely diddly squat about me on the web. Thats the way I like it. Its called discretion, or for our merkin cousins "what happens in Vegas, STAYS in Vegas"

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Big Brother


    I just googled myself only to find a few pages I would rather people not be able to see. One page shows not only my name and address but my mobile phone number too! I managed to delete that information but how long will Google hold the old information?

    Another was a post on Yahoo! groups and had links I posted there leading back to my Flickr account which includes family photos. I have no idea how one would delete Yahoo! group postings. I checked their site for an answer and it appears that you can't.

    I thought I had been careful but it would seem it is VERY easy to leave a breadcrumb trail behind you whilst using the internet. If I had known this when I first started using it I would have NEVER posted my real details anywhere to begin with (Other than for purchasing).

    I also blame websites that do not hide personal information away from websearch crawlers like Google. But mainly I just blame myself for being ignorant of the dangers. I can only imagine what information people have put out there about themselves unintentionally.

  20. David 141

    Don't inhale

    So, you can't get into the US if you've done drugs, but you can be elected President?

  21. John Square

    17 quid for a four chapter book?

    Forget that.

  22. rpjs

    We are humans

    We are the dominant species on this planet - we have a larger range than any other creature in the world, bar a few bacteria we've taken on our adventures with us.

    Why? Because we have intelligence (allegedly), and that gives us the ability to adapt. And we will adapt to to this too, just like we adapted to the invention of cooking, of agriculture. of settlement and everything else.

    Yes it's sad that a trainee teacher lost her job because of an embarrassing Facebook picture, but if the education authorities are going to insist on taking that line, they're going to be even more short of new teachers than they are already. They're just going to have to adapt.

  23. Number6

    Hunting Information

    There is stuff I would refrain from posting, or even putting in email. I'll occasionally use a phone for when face-to-face is not practical, but yes, I'm aware of my on-line footprint, which is probably larger than it should be given that it goes back over fifteen years now.

    Fortunately I appear to share a name with an academic in the US who publishes lots of papers and someone who writes books, and they come up on searches. It appears that there's now another academic at my old university with the same name, making it even harder to find me on searches. Apart from a couple of images from over ten years ago, I'm buried under all these information about other people with the same name.

  24. Whitter

    Archivy in the UK

    Ask any archivist worth their salt: if you want data to be useful you have to have a functioning deletion policy in place.

    All this web 2.0 milarkie should have a retention policy with a deletion date enforced unless you actively set it otherwise. Ditto (more-so) for the way-back machine.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not really a technological problem

    More a problem of

    * People being unfairly judged on past actions based on unrealistic standards

    * Leaving information in public for busybodies to find

    The technology just makes it easier to dig up dirt on strangers. People need to learn that the nowhere on the Internet is a private place.

  26. Mike Moyle Silver badge

    Now, I'm no programmer...

    ...but it seems to me that, while not giving out information that you think might come back to bite one on the ass is a good thing in general, I think that people should be able to expect SOMETHING like the following decision path from someone looking at their online information:


    10 IF (someone posted online about doing SomethingStupid) THEN goto 20 ELSE goto END

    20 IF ("SomethingStupid" = illegal) THEN goto 30 ELSE goto 60

    30 IF(StatuteOfLimitations for "SomethingStupid" = EXPIRED) THEN goto 60 ELSE goto 40

    40 DO WhatYouGottaDo

    50 Goto END

    60 DO STFU


    ...Of course, that requires the ability of people to STFU when something doesn't directly affect them, so we're probably doomed on THAT count!

    (And to the -- probably inevitable -- AC who wants to criticize my (lack of) programming skills, please feel free to "goto 60"!)

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "The problem with never putting up controversial data yourself, is that someone else can do it too and tag you in them all."

    Yep. We used to have a weather reporter on one of our local TV networks who will now forever be known as "the nude weatherman" because of a photo posted to MySpace by a "friend".

    The way things are going, the only people who will remain "employable" will be luddites, hermits and the Amish.

  28. JC 2

    @ @alphaxion

    AC wrote "The way things are going, the only people who will remain "employable" will be luddites, hermits and the Amish."

    or people with enough sense they don't pose nude for friends with cameras? Granted though, cameras are almost everywhere these days, but as it becomes more and more commonplace to see the dirt on someone immortalized in a digi pic, it will become less and less common to hold those against them. If everyone is unemployable by a set of standards, a different set of standards evolves as the work still has to get done.

  29. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Indexing rather than Deletion ....

    "Ask any archivist worth their salt: if you want data to be useful you have to have a functioning deletion policy in place." ..... By Whitter Posted Monday 23rd November 2009 10:48 GMT

    Earlier book burnings have always been a Precursor to dumb World Wars, Whitter, with Clinically Psychotic and Psychopathic Delusional Fools thinking Grand Dictatorships. No Really a Path to be even Virtually Supported in any Modern Communicating World........ for it is bound to attract a knock at the door at least, although more probably would it warrant and deliver an attack on the door.

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