Jeremy Bentham, of his own volition, lives forever in a panopticon – #HHLDN #UCL

In so many ways I am one of the godless scum of Gower Street – from 1985 I studied pure astronomy at UCL and became familiar on a weekly if not daily basis with the waxwork fizzog of Jeremy Bentham, upright in a glass-fronted cabinet for all the students to see, his desiccated and actual skull apparently stowed away in the college vault lest the bastards from King’s steal it again.

So from a reasonably early age I’ve known what a Panopticon is, plus having sacrificed my 2:1 in favour of alcohol, journalism and hacking I have since had enough experience to understand that security is a matter of taste and policy tempered by realism – so I find that Jeremy Bentham’s decision to live out his death by incarcerating his corpse in a glass-fronted box is a perfectly rational decision – howeverso ironic – because of what he sought to achieve through this act, viz: a degree of ongoing notoriety.

So what?

Some 25 years later I encounter – and keep encountering – mindless pretentious authoritarian pseudery such as that peddled by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger in his new (there had to be one) book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.

Mayer-Schönberger is professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at OII – an institution along with its Harvard peer with which I am less and less amused – and that his job title speaks of Governance and Regulation bodes only ill; after all – who would have invented Twitter in a regulated environment?

The Grauniad interview with Mayer-Schönberger haz full of the trite:

I agree we benefit from digital memories, but not if that means we lose the capacity to forget because that capacity is valuable. […]

Nine out of 10 Americans want the right to force websites and advertising companies to delete all stored information about them. And for US digital natives the figure is 84%. […]

We set up institutions of memory to help us remember important things – such as the Holocaust, for example. But with Google and Flickr and other sites offering seemingly comprehensive memory, we might be prompted to devalue these established institutions of memory. They risk being drowned out by stuff online. My fear is that the digital age, while benefiting us enormously, impoverishes us too.

Let’s run that last quote one more time: Mayer-Schönberger is arguing that there are events worthy of permanent remembrance – eg: the Holocaust – but the Holocaust itself may be debased by the fact that my Google Search History may equally remain on file forever. Weasel-words aside, what manner of argument is this? I’m reminded of “Amadeus”, of Emperor Joseph II perhaps saying that the Internet persists “too many memories” and that future generations will somehow be unable to learn of the tribulations of the Jews, distracted perhaps by the Google search histories of the western world.

What nonsense.

Viktor – through the medium of his Grauniad interviewer – invokes Jezzer, too:

In the 19th century, Jeremy Bentham envisaged a prison called a panopticon in which guards could watch prisoners without them knowing whether they were being watched. In the 20th century, Michel Foucault argued that the model of the panopticon was used more abstractly to exercise control over society. In the 21st century, Mayer-Schönberger argues that the panopticon now extends across time and cyberspace, making us act as if we are watched even if we are not. He worries that this “perfect memory” will make us self-censor. “That’s becoming standard. In the US most colleges have a mandatory class on how to clean up your Facebook account.”

Regular readers will know my views of the c-word – but yes, we will self-censor, and to some extent that’s marvellous. Churchill said that “History is written by the victors” and for the most part he was damned right. The difference is that nowadays with the web we are all victors, we are all capable of communicating in a way that will persist beyond our span – every chav, every redneck, every nerd, every willing or unwilling victim of a system who touches a computer will create an information footprint much greater than the formerly requisite birth, marriage and death, and one which can survive time more easily – and we shall all seek to spin ourselves to our advantage for as long as technical civilisation endures.

Thus we are all being – in a sense – watched. Bentham never foresaw this, because it’s the tail wagging the dog: our stories are offered up to future history because of the value it affords us now. We don’t get entirely to write our own histories – but that’s OK, in fact I would ask who suggested that we were ever able to? To date it’s been rare that someone completely controls a PR story, so how is this any different?

Wherefore is Viktor’s complaint when measured against reality?

I’m horrified by this bullshit; if we are in a “public place” and take photographs, it should not be up to the subjects of the photographs as to how long is it before the JPEGs “expire”. There is no human “right to be forgotten“, not least because it is an imposition on third-parties like the photographer, artist or historian. Equally there is no fair choosing of what should and should not be remembered – no one is competent to choose – and there is no finite pint glass into which we are trying to pour a quart of memory since there is no limit to what we can “remember” nowadays.

Thus to argue from the perspective that there are any of these things is unfortunate. To write an entire book from such premise is careless.

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