The Internets Never Forgets

by Henry on October 23, 2009

I wrote a review a couple of weeks ago of Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger’s “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age” (Powells, Amazon)

Information technology has grown so entwined with our lives that it is easy to overlook the marvels flowering forth from it. … But if Viktor Mayer-Schonberger is right, these technologies may grow to entangle and choke us. They create a kind of external memory, recording our actions and interactions in digital video footage and thousands upon thousands of digital photographs. … Mayer-Schonberger argues that these developments challenge how we organise society and how we understand ourselves. … At its heart, his case against digital memory is humanist. He worries that it will not only change the way we organise society, but it will damage our identities. Identity and memory interact in complicated ways. Our ability to forget may be as important to our social relationships as our ability to remember. To forgive may be to forget; when we forgive someone for serious transgressions we in effect forget how angry we once were at them. … Delete argues that digital memory has the capacity both to trap us in the past and to damage our trust in our own memories.

I probably should have linked to it before, but didn’t, because I wanted to combine the link with a short review of Tyler Cowen’s recent book “Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World” (Powells, Amazon) As I mention in the review, Tyler’s book presents a very interesting contrast to Viktor’s. What Tyler sees as evidence of individual empowerment, Viktor sees as as a serious threat to personal identity. Viktor fears that technologies will undermine our sense of self, and our ability to remake ourselves in order to respond to a changing social environment. Tyler sees new technologies as valuable precisely because they allow us to remake ourselves and our identities, creating our own ‘economies’ (here, I think he is harking back to the Greek origins of the term) or internally ordered environments by picking and choosing “small cultural bits” and assembling them according to our own personal hierarchies.

To make this claim stick, Tyler draws a comparison between our behaviour, and the strategies that autistic people use to manage their environment. Autistic people often find themselves overwhelmed by information, and hence create their own structured environments to deal with them. Similarly, when we are faced with the enormous variety of information and cultural material available through the web, we are inclined to build our own environments, using tools like Google Reader, Facebook, Twitter etc to manage the material that we are exposed to, selecting the sources that are likely to be most interesting, and reassembling them in ways that are useful to us. Tyler’s claim here is twofold – that we are all becoming more ‘like’ autistic people, and that many people on the autism spectrum are likely to do relatively well in this kind of environment. They can pick and choose the ways in which they interact with people, shape their social environments more easily etc than would have previously been possible. I am not on the autism spectrum myself, nor do I have any friends who I know to be on this spectrum, but I don’t think that people who are differently situated will find this book offensive. To the contrary: it is a paean to neurodiversity, and to the ways in which new forms of interaction allow a much more diverse set of perceptions of the world than was ever possible in the past. To take one example: it has a very nice chapter on taste formation, arguing that Bourdieuvian accounts fail to account for neurodiversity as a key source of different tastes. People with unusual neurological make-ups, for example, may be more inclined than others to appreciate modern atonal composers.

I haven’t read everything that Tyler has written, but this is the best book of his that I have read. If you like his blogging at all, you will probably like this book a lot. It is a rapid-fire progression of insights, fascinating-but-unproven hypotheses, claims, counter-claims, cultural criticism (his discussion of Sherlock Holmes is particularly good) and normative pronouncements. This is possibly a purely subjective claim – perhaps Tyler is perfectly positioned for me in terms of the assumptions that he shares with me and those that he doesn’t – but I don’t know anyone else writing today who I find to be as original in useful ways. I am repeatedly surprised in happy and informative ways by what he has to say, even (and perhaps especially) when I don’t agree with them. I feel smarter when I am reading Tyler than I do when I am reading other contemporary writers, because the internal dialogue that I am conducting with him as I read is a richer and more interesting one for me than it is with those others.

This is not, of course, to say that I like everything about the book. In many ways the book reads for me less like an academic text with a single coherent argument than like a thematically specialized information rich environment from which I can pick and choose what seems interesting. It is not an incoherent book – it has a small number of key themes that interweave together, moving back and forth between the background and the foreground – but it does not add up to a coherent whole that is easily summarized. Sometimes autism and neurodiversity are looked at in their own right, sometimes as ways to think about how we are all managing the cultural environment that we are navigating. I found this a little frustrating until I decided that it was best to treat the book as a series of closely related essays rather than a book with a single argument. I wonder whether in a few years people will be writing this kind of book as a set of essays, released over a period of time, rather than as a single volume. The form of the 50-80,000 word non-fiction book owes a lot to the underlying economics of publishing and these are changing.

Still, this form of presentation has disadvantages as well as advantages. In particular, I felt that there was an underlying argument that never quite was developed as explicitly as it should have been, and that would have been stronger if its mechanisms had been brought out and developed systematically. It goes something like this. What Tyler is trying to do, I think, is to write a book in the tradition of the classical economists, but dealing with modern culture and technology. At one point, he suggests that Adam Smith’s story about the pin factory can be interpreted as a “parable of autism and the rising returns to autistic cognitive strengths”

If you can perform a repetitive task with the proper skill, you can earn a decent income because you are no longer expected to be a jack-of-all-trades or to master a wide variety of skills. It increases the chance that you can have a “dysfunction” and still do well in life and in your career. … Today it’s often enough to be very good at one specific professional task. In other words, the division of labor provides disproportionate benefits to people with specialized cognitive talents and that includes many people along the autism spectrum. It’s yet another way in which modernity supports diversity.

This is a very nice and interesting insight – that one of the reasons why market societies do well is because they are able to accommodate and use the talents of a much more varied set of individuals with particular cognitive strengths and disadvantages than more traditional societies which expect single individuals to successfully occupy a variety of social roles. But it also suggests to me that what Tyler is doing is to use autism as a parable of the benefits of a society where individuals focus their attentions and energies on their own goals and in particular on their own internal orderings.

The problem with this, as I see it, is that Tyler would like to do two things, just as Smith did. First, he would like to argue that it is to our own personal benefit when we can ‘create our own economies’ – that we build happier and richer individual lives when we do this. Secondly, he would like to argue that it is to our general collective benefit too – that a society where we organize and communicate in cosmopolitan ways, coordinating to create new forms of collective diversity, is likely to be culturally richer and better than one where we do not. But it is not at all clear to me that there are not important trade-offs between these two desiderata. Smith, building on the Physiocrats, famously identified the mechanism that bade self-love and social be the same. Tyler doesn’t do this, unless his arguments about the benefits of new technologies are somehow generalizable. And it is a much more difficult task to identify these mechanisms in cultural life (where collective organized interaction may be important for cultural success) than in the market.

The question that I think isn’t really answered in any general way in the book is the following one, and I think it is key: Under what exact conditions does our construction of purely internal mental orderings create value for other members of society?

One can point (as Tyler does) to the ways that new technologies make it easier not only to create internal orderings, but to share them. When I use Google Reader to read blogs, I am able not only to construct my own order of blogs, but also to see other people’s orderings, to easily find items that they have thought interesting and so on. Still, I suspect that there are important trade-offs here (others’ reporting of their internal orderings via Google Reader is an externality, and economists argue that positive externalities will likely be systematically undersupplied). And, maybe the problem is worse than simple underprovision. New technologies which encourage the kinds of exchange that Tyler (and I) would like to see can be undermined or subverted. I have referred before to the collapse of the Trackback mechanism which really linked blogs into a conversation back in the day; now major blog search engines are collapsing under the weight of spam, or moving away from providing lists of links (e.g. Technorati) and hence making it much harder to see which new people are trying to argue with you and to bring them into the conversation. One way of interpreting this is to say that there will be incentives for actors to disrupt technological tools which try to allow people either to create collective orderings or to share their orderings with others whenever these orderings are linked to material outcomes (people’s buying decisions, decisions on where to browse and hence which ads they view etc).

Perhaps I am wrong – but the only way to really start figuring this out is to try to construct a more general – and systematic – theoretical framework that would specifically address the relationship between the specific technologies that underpin the equilibrium that Tyler identifies and broader mechanisms of social choice and knowledge aggregation. If I am right, then some of the benefits that Tyler identifies may possibly be less an ineluctable result of new forms of social organization than a happy but fragile contingency, a specific but temporary intersection of society and technology at a particular moment in time. The point is that unless there is some general mechanism connecting the individual and collective benefits of self-ordering, we don’t have any general warrant for arguing that they will stay connected. Figuring out whether there is such a mechanism or not would require a different kind of book than the book that Tyler has written, and I’d very much like him to write it.



Socrates 10.24.09 at 12:44 pm

But it also suggests to me that what Tyler is doing is to use autism as a parable of the benefits of a society where individuals focus their attentions and energies on their own goals and in particular on their own internal orderings.

This is a gross mis-characterisation of a significant proportion of those people on the Autism Spectrum. For example:

... often describing children with autism who are atypical in their presentation and who frequently initiate social interactions (albeit lacking in reciprocity) as opposed to those who are more avoidant or aloof.

From Asperger’s Syndrome: Diagnosis and Treatment, Dr Karen Toth.

And it continues in the long tradition of describing our Being as ‘apart’ and ‘separate’ and not truly of the human community.


Eric H 10.24.09 at 5:19 pm

Socrates, that’s a good point. I think the quoted phrase is Henry’s take on what Tyler is saying rather than what Tyler is actually saying, but also Tyler comes at the autism issue from many different angles, and I think Henry is in this sentence focusing on but one of those. In other words, I don’t think either of them mean it in the way you have indicated. I think Tyler spent a good deal of one of the early chapters dispelling exactly that myth, and at least some of the book discusses ways in which autistics are better able to participate in the human community through the internet because it serves as a self-directed filter. In other words, the ‘tubes let them control social experiences to their liking.

My Aspie wife has made this same point to me. I don’t know if I have ever met another human being with as palpable a feel for “community” and “humanity”. At the same time, she needs to maintain some control over her environment to avoid overstimulation. The internet allows her to do that while making a living on her area of expertise.


Socrates 10.24.09 at 7:43 pm

Eric, I recently listened to Dr Happé from I think the IoP/Kings College in London, saying how she always had to make a point of emphasising to the doctors she trains, that we aren’t chillingly detached psychopaths…

If Henry does write the book, I hope he does plenty of research…


Henry 10.24.09 at 8:24 pm

Just to say that Socrates’ take is neither stated nor implied in Tyler’s book – which indeed takes considerable pains to make exactly the opposite case – if I have implied otherwise by over-simplifying Tyler’s argument, it is entirely my fault …


Michelle Dawson 10.24.09 at 9:16 pm

What I think Henry has (unintentionally) done is demonstrate a point Tyler makes in his book.

Tyler writes about the limitations and shallowness of stories and the problems they cause. Turning everything into stories has drawbacks, and demanding or expecting or adhering to certain kinds of stories can have harmful consequences. Nonautistics are especially prone to demanding information in story form. They are especially likely to reduce or edit all information into familiar stories and in doing so, can create persistent and harmful distortions.

Even after reading such a strong warning, Henry reduces autism in Tyler’s book to a story (“parable”), and this invariably results in a striking distortion of what actually was written. It is as though Henry, having a nonautistic brain, just can’t help it, a problem which Tyler in fact predicts. When I read Henry’s fascinating (for me, anyway…) review, I can practically *see* his non-autistic brain at work–those rigidly mandatory cognitive editors that Tyler writes so well about.


Henry 10.25.09 at 10:15 am

Michelle – my use of the term ‘parable’ is actually a play on Tyler’s use of the same word. What I am looking for is not a story, but a theory (maybe you could argue that the two are the same – but it seems to me that they are substantially different).


Michael 10.25.09 at 4:52 pm

Where is the space for people of ordinary intelligence who want to raise their kids and not work their brains until they cry in this future?


Michelle Dawson 10.25.09 at 8:26 pm

In response to Henry, that Tyler uses the word “parable” (you give an example), and that he writes about existing and popular stories, does not mean that he turns autism into a story (parable). In fact he warns against this, which does not mean his book is free of stories. His book is in part about stories, how stories can be used and what stories can do, good and bad.

Tyler gives examples of ways in which stories can be harmful, including with respect to autism. This makes your decision to see autism as a story, and what happens in consequences, all the more fascinating (at least, to me).

A theory should take into account all relevant information, and this is what you seem to be looking for. But you’ve also reduced autism in Tyler’s book to a story (“parable”) which–while it is simple, popular, expected, familiar, etc.–does not resemble, as you’ve noted, what Tyler actually wrote. On the other hand, according to what Tyler in fact wrote, what you’ve done with respect to autism is predictable.


John Quiggin 10.27.09 at 12:06 am

Spam and its effects would be worth a whole book in itself. Is there one? A feature of it that strikes me is the apparent unwillingness of legislators, but even more of courts, to take serious action against spam, even though it relies heavily on the serious criminality required to create botnets.

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