by Raizel Liebler
This is a book review of Meg Leta Jones’ Ctrl + Z: The Right to Be Forgotten (NYU Press 2016). But it also isn’t.
Memory is weird. While writing this book review, I wanted to cite to a recent podcast I listened to about those with “super memory” – the ability to have very limited memory forgetfulness and excellent memory recall. But I couldn’t remember which podcast, so I used my memory tools: my podcaster and Google, but they both let me down. I’m not sure of the intended success of podcasting as an archival model when I couldn’t even find a podcast that I listened to less than two weeks ago. But I do remember listening to this older Radiolab podcast, Memory and Forgetting – or alternatively because I listen to Radiolab, a revamped version of this hour seemed like a strong possibly for my forgotten super-memory podcast.
But that brings me to the substance of this book and this book review that you, dear reader, are reading. The Radiolab podcast, Memory and Forgetting, includes a segment by at-least-in-part-disgraced writer Jonah Lehrer. Yes, the same one that is heartily defended by Jon Ronson in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed because, as he argues, the earning potential of a straight white man allows for forgiveness of past behavior. Though as Keidra writes in her Shamed book review, there is a completely different standard for women, people of color, and especially women of color when it comes to forgiveness or forgetfulness; instead “one that positions those on the periphery of the media and tech industries (women, people of color, freelancers, social media participants/’hashtag activists’) as mere interlopers.” Nowhere on the Radiolab page does it mention – “Hey, maybe some of this information is possibly not trustworthy because of the writer involved!” or alternatively, “If you are looking for a reliable, citable source: walk on by to something else.” This Radiolab work stands in a memory bubble, outside of the important type of work that is done by Retraction Watch, a service for exposing and tracking mostly scientific publications that have or should be retracted, as their tagline states “tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process.”
A memory bubble is neutral, yet its semblance of neutrality is a façade.
Ctrl + Z isn’t even an unique name for a book; there have been other books with this name, including a children’s book and at least two romance novels. So were those previous books remembered or discounted when naming this book?
Meg Leta Jones’ Ctrl + Z: The Right to Be Forgotten is such an important book. Yes, it is about the right to be forgotten, but also about cultural memory, privacy, and redemption. Equally importantly it is already wrong. Wrong about what? If that is your first question, then you don’t understand this book because it is “a snapshot in a moment” — even if completely accurate at the moment of publication, laws change, policies shift, and new horrids occur. If this type of recursive thinking is fascinating rather than mind-melding, then this book is for you.
In addition to serving as a look-see about the state of the law in both the United States and Europe (and deeper internationally) regarding privacy and related rights, Ctrl + Z serves as a conceptual framework regarding how we should proceed on a variety of issues. Yes, of course, balancing tests — always balancing tests. But how about a conceptual framework for explaining the “ban the box” question from a law and forgiveness lens? Jones suggests that there needs to be time, oversight, and relief from accountability (143). Not everyone will agree with her conclusions on this issue and others in the book, but her laying out the importance of these issues is well-written and carefully considered.
Perhaps you, dear reader, are cynical and have read all the things about online culture and privacy and forgetting, and are beyond over it. Then I recommend to you the chapter Digital Information Stewardship. I too read all the things, but I haven’t seen a chapter like this since the olden days of Web 2.0 discussions. Jones talks about the perma.cc project, helping to stop link rot in law review articles and beyond, within the context of her entire discussion on privacy and discoverability. But that is at the heart of this essential chapter; that “increased data discoverability is thus associated with increased data ephemerality” (108) Jones understands the costs contained within both forgetting and remembering, and argues “widespread acceptance of information stewardship  may provide the necessary framework to achieve more effective preservation and privacy online.” (113)
But applying information stewardship is difficult, especially when there are “cultural” differences, even within academia and publishing. On the copyright page of the book exists this statement — as with all recent NYU Press books, complete with its anachronistic language:
References to Internet websites (URLs) were accurate at the time of writing. Neither the author nor New York University Press is responsible for URLs that may have expired or changed since the manuscript was prepared.
Here I sit writing this review within two months of publication — and I’ve found at least one case of link rot in the cited urls (from a random sample of citations). There is more link rot to come. I wish that perma.cc had been used for the urls where DOIs were unavailable, proving the value of information stewardship!
I fully expect Ctrl + Z to be cited widely. Considering citations are trails of memory, of discovery, of where we present writers received information from the past, I hope this book is cited when its ideas are used. But there isn’t at present a good mechanism to effectively tell readers about information shifts, about when to look the other way, when something is blemished or untrustworthy.
And until we create the tools to find the right information and to use them effectively in an ethical way, situations like my own memory search, the issues raised by Jones in Ctrl + Z will continue to be those that we as individuals, members of communities, and citizens will struggle with,
Summary: Highly, highly recommended. This book should be used in classes on privacy, digital ethics, online culture, and more. Share with friends and family grasping to understand online culture issues, especially with anyone who has ever said to just ignore the bad things online.