Wednesday, 4 November 2009

It’s cheaper to Record than Delete.

(Update: Edited for increased clarity!)

When I was in Tesco Watford store on Saturday looking at their range of USB hard drives, two thoughts struck me:
  1. These disk drives had become amazingly cheap in terms of Gigabytes per £Pound
  2. I'd rather buy an additional drive rather than delete anything to free up my existing disk capacity.
These were fairly soft thoughts and my wish to get on with the grocery shopping stopped me taking them anywhere….until Monday morning and a programme called ‘Start The Week’ on the UK’s national speech radio station, BBC Radio 4.

Its presenter, Andrew Marr, introduced guest Viktor Mayer-Schönberger who has written a book called “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age” which explores the human consequences of a milestone that has just come about in this, the Information Age, in which we now live: It is cheaper to record than delete.

In other words, we have just begun to find it cheaper to add more storage capacity than to spend time deleting digital stuff we don’t need any more.

I know I have been conditioned this way:
  1. Google Mail (which runs my email account) often tells me that it has increased the available storage capacity - and that’s despite the fact that I sometimes get 200+ emails a day (excluding spam).
  2. I don't remove the 400+ digital photos I took of one event of which 30 are of reasonable use. Why bother? The fact that I take several shots at any one time in the hope that one will be great does not mean that I delete the rest. They’re 9MB images in RAW format and I have a total of 54GB of them in my iPhoto library. Should I spend an afternoon deleting them, or £49 adding 320GB more new space thanks to a Tesco-purchased external drive? Here's my payment card...
So in the Information Age we live in, we have now reached the milestone that it is cheaper to record than delete. Excellent? Viktor Mayer-Schönberger says not. From the BBC website, this dark message:
Forgetting is part of what makes us human, but in the age of online digital information it is under threat. In Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger argues that our lives and reputations can be harmed by the internet’s infinite capacity to remember. Digital information and capacious online storage mean that a mistake from the distant past can come back to haunt us with one click of the mouse. Viktor discusses the importance of forgetting and suggests some solutions - how can memory loss be artificially created in a digital world?
So, if you search for your name in a search engine, you can find out a lot about yourself. Some of it you may not like. Some of it others may not like about you, either. For example, take the USA border guard who used a search engine to uncover that a visiting professor had blogged 5 years before that he (the professor) took pot at university 40 years before that - and refused to let him entry. The professor is now barred from visiting the USA, forever.

I, too, have a track record although I appear to have lived a rather sheltered life compared to some people. Search for me and you’ll learn of my love of ham radio, my pro-Microsoft stance against Linux advocates, and my campaigning for the same rights for gay people as everyone else. Oh and working for Tesco of course!

I have no issue with my past but I am absolutely barred (or will be arrested) in a small number of countries for my ‘gay activism’ which is easy to spot from a quick search of my name, and would not have happened if I had kept quiet online. On the other hand, being a radio amateur has opened some interesting doors that may not have been there, and my (continued) love of Microsoft technologies wins me friends and foes alike. The good news for me is that I am ‘happy’ with what’s out there and prepared to defend it.

Just as well: I can’t delete any of it. It’s out of reach, beyond my control, forever. Nobody has any desire to try and remove it. It’s cheaper to record than delete.

Now that the Internet has infinite capacity to remember, the consequences will resonate in all our lives in a way that many of us don't yet realise.

Take a deep breath and go search for your own name on all major search engines. What is the Internet forever remembering about you?


  1. I've read Schonberger's book and there's some stuff in there that rings eerily true. Particularly the personal stuff - who hasn't had old feelings come up that they thought they'd left behind when they find an unfortunate text message lurking in the memory of their phone?

    If you're interested in hearing a little more comment from Viktor Mayer-Schonberger he'll be appearing on the BBC World Service show "The Forum", again talking about Delete. It should be a little different though: the Forum has a focus on cross-disciplinary discussion, so Schonberger will be talking with sculptor Antony Gormley and neuroscientist Beau Lotto, and it should be interesting to see what sort of perspective they can bring on his ideas.

  2. Thanks for this - I'll certainly have a listen. For those in the UK, this episode of Start The Week is available for a while now on BBC iPlayer, or worldwide as an iTunes podcast.


As this blog grows in readership - and because it carries the Tesco brand - I have had to become more careful about the sort of comments that are acceptable. The good news is that I'm a champion of free speech so please be as praising or as critical as you wish! The only comments I DON'T allow through are:

1. Comments which criticise an individual other than myself, or are critical of an organisation other than Tesco. This is simply because they cannot defend themselves so is unfair and possibly libellous. Comments about some aspect of Tesco being better/worse than another equivalent organisation are allowed as long as you start by saying "in my personal opinion.." or "I think that...". ... followed by a "...because.." and some reasoned argument.

2. Comments which are totally unrelated to the context of the original article. If I have written about a mobile app and you start complaining about the price of potatoes then your comment isn't going stay for long!

3. Advertising / web links / spam.

4. Insulting / obscene messages.

Ok, rules done - now it's your go: