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Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma
23 Nov 2010

The crises of digital identity

Had Nandan Nilekani read the story of Stacy Snyder, he would have thought twice before launching the ambitious UID project. The story of Stacy goes like this: by spring of 2006, the 25-year-old single mother had completed her coursework and was looking forward to become a teacher. Summoned by university officials, she was told she would not be a teacher, although she had earned all the credits, passed all the exams and completed requisite practical training. She was denied her certificate, she was told, because her behavior was unbecoming of a teacher.

Shockingly, an online photo showing her in costume wearing a pirate’s hat and drinking from a plastic cup had done the trick. The university argued that the online photo was unprofessional since it might expose pupils to a photograph of a teacher drinking alcohol. Uploaded for the fun of it, the innocent act had proved costly. Not only Stacy’s offer to offload the photo got turned down, her law suit against the university wasn’t successful either.

Stacy’s case may sound exceptional, but it is not. Dozens of cases of profound embarrassment, and even legal action, have occurred since then. Curiously, the university's position does not reflect the validity or stupidity of its decision; instead it is about the importance of ‘digital identity’. The internet remembered what the likes of Stacy had long forgotten.

In Delete, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger traces the important role that forgetting has played throughout human history and analyses the manner in which this virtue has been undermined by digital technology. The trouble, argues Viktor, is that cheap storage and easy retrieval do not allow outdated information to fade away. The past is ever present, ready to be called up at the click of a mouse.

Delete broadens the ‘privacy’ debate to encompass the dimensions of time. It provides well-balanced account of the challenges we face in a world where our digital traces are saved for life.

While the economists argue that better information increases efficiency, the question remains whether humans can live in peace with their identity being stored, and quite often misused or misinterpreted for posterity? On a societal level such information enables policy makers to adjust policies before problems have gotten out of hand. But at a personal level, digitized personal details can be seen as an infringement on one’s privacy.

With background in business and technology, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger vividly depicts the legal, social and cultural implications of a world that will no longer remember ‘how to forget’. Digital remembering, argues Viktor, undermines the important role forgetting performs (to be forgiving to its members and to remain open to change), and thus threatens us individually and as a society in our capacity to learn, to reason, and to act in time.

Delete - The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age
by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger; Princeton University Press, New Jersey 237 pages, US$ 25

 Other books reviewed by Dr Sudhirendar Sharma
Features > Book Shelf
Spoiling Tibet
Posting Date: 28 Feb 2014

A Journey in the Future of Water
Posting Date: 28 Feb 2014

Yamuna Manifesto
Posting Date: 28 Feb 2014

Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

Lead View
People, Partition and the Pain
By Rina Mukherji
15 Aug 2013

Dr Jayanti Basu's book analyzes the complex feelings of hatred and longing for the homeland that have contributed to shaping the personalities of a generation of people who were forced to ..
Book Shelf

Yamuna Manifesto

A Journey in the Future of Water

Spoiling Tibet

On Western Terrorism
Devinder Sharma
Carmen Miranda
Pandurang Hegde
Sudhirendar Sharma
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