Remembering and Forgetting in the Digital Age

A joint research venture between the Research Center for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen, the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and the Center for Information Technology, Society, and Law (ITSL) at the University of Zurich resulted 2018 in the publication of a new book: Remembering and Forgetting it the Digital Age, edited by Florent Thouvenin, Peter Hettich, Herbert Burkert and Urs Gasser.

Today, ever more information is digital. Much of it is readily available and the storage has become easier and cheaper. Yet, digital information within networks is vulnerable; continuous curation is needed to preserve its on-going availability. These aspects of the digital data ecosphere is going to produce a new balance between remembering and forgetting.

This shift precipitated a debate in politics, society and science. Viktor Mayer- Schoenberger’s book delete provided an important contribution to the discussion about the “right to be forgotten”. The European Court of Justice confirmed such a right: the European data protection law had to be adjusted. The recent enactment of the General Data Protection Regulation by the EU Parliament acknowledged and expanded this right.

Several political changes led to a process reflecting on what to remember and what to forget about one’s national history. To mention just one example: Remembering and forgetting are still affecting the relations between Japan, South Korea and China to this day. The politics of memory play an important role in a country’s identity and the way it is seen in the world community.

But also, private organizations are facing challenges to memorize. Not only have they often been involved in crises of national memories, but also the requirements of the modern information state have created an increasing amount of recording duties and information preservation obligations.

The law has to take into account how individuals, organizations and the state are remembering. Information technology has brought new dynamics to the interrelations between memory and law. Digitization, storage technology and retrieval led Mayer-Schoenberger to the conclusion that extensive recording and keeping was becoming a social normality. How is this affecting traditional archiving? And what would it mean for the protection of privacy?

Do the digital technologies require a new perspective on the interrelation between memory and law? To what extent should social steering mechanisms be adapted to meet the challenges? To address these and related questions, this publication combines three aspects: law, technology, and interdisciplinary perspectives that bring together a variety of authors who survey various areas of the interplay between memory, technology and social intervention from their own unique disciplinary perspective.

The issues of the book are extremely relevant. The article by Christoph Graf, the former director of the Swiss Federal Archives, is particularly interesting for measuring the tension between the new European law on the protection of privacy and requirements for archiving. I have repeatedly addressed similar issues for the digital humanities and the digital historiography, respectively; I would like to mention here three of them: Big Data in History; Forget it!? Erinnerung und historische Sinnbildung in der „breiten Gegenwart“; Geschichte Digital – Historische Welten neu vermessen.


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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