Viktor Mayer-Schönberger traces the important role that forgetting has played throughout human history, from the ability to make sound decisions unencumbered by the past to the possibility of second chances. The written word made it possible for humans to remember across generations and time, yet now digital technology and global networks are overriding our natural ability to forget–the past is ever present, ready to be called up at the click of a mouse. Mayer-Schönberger examines the technology that’s facilitating the end of forgetting–digitization, cheap storage and easy retrieval, global access, and increasingly powerful software–and describes the dangers of everlasting digital memory, whether it’s outdated information taken out of context or compromising photos the Web won’t let us forget. He explains why information privacy rights and other fixes can’t help us, and proposes an ingeniously simple solution–expiration dates on information–that may.
Which paint color is most likely to tell you that a used car is in good shape? How can officials identify the most dangerous New York City manholes before they explode? And how did Google searches predict the spread of the H1N1 flu outbreak?
The key to answering these questions, and many more, is big data. Big data refers to our burgeoning ability to crunch vast collections of information, analyze it instantly, and draw sometimes profoundly surprising conclusions from it. This emerging science can translate myriad phenomena from the price of airline tickets to the text of millions of books into searchable form, and uses our increasing computing power to unearth epiphanies that we never could have seen before. A revolution on par with the Internet or perhaps even the printing press, big data will change the way we think about business, health, politics, education, and innovation in the years to come. It also poses fresh threats, from the inevitable end of privacy as we know it to the prospect of being penalized for things we haven’t even done yet, based on big data’s ability to predict our future behavior.