Interview with Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger

© Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger and Figure/Ground
Dr. Mayer-Schoenberger was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. January 7th, 2011.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, faculty affiliate with Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, is the Oxford Internet Institute‘s Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation. His research at the University of Oxford focuses on the role of information in a networked economy. He was previously Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Director of the Information + Innovation Policy Research Centre. Before coming to the LKYSPP he spent ten years on the faculty of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Professor Mayer-Schönberger has published seven books, including most recently Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton University Press 2009) and Governance and Information Technology (MIT Press 2007), as well as over a hundred articles (including in Science) and book chapters. A native Austrian, Professor Mayer-Schonberger founded Ikarus Software in 1986, a company focusing on data security, and developed Virus Utilities, which became the best-selling Austrian software product. He was voted Top-5 Software Entrepreneur in Austria in 1991 and Person-of-the-Year for the State of Salzburg in 2000. He chairs the Rueschlikon Conference on Information Policy, is the cofounder of the SubTech conference series, and served on the ABA/AALS National Conference of Lawyers and Scientists. He is on the academic advisory boards of corporations and academic institutions, including Microsoft. He holds a number of law degrees, including one from Harvard and an MS(Econ) from the London School of Economics. In his spare time, he likes to travel, go to the movies, and learn about architecture.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

Early in my childhood I wanted to become an inventor. Realizing one’s ideas seemed an enticing proposition. But I really never intended to become a university professor until my father, who wanted me to take over his tax law practice, asked me what I wanted to be rather than a tax lawyer. I said university professor because it was all about ideas and yet sounded more respectable to my parents than “inventor” (although I had been a software entrepreneur before).

In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?

I am not sure it did. When I began teaching at Harvard I had very nice PowerPoint slides and provided them online to my students. I also offered them online discussion forums etc. I did okay in the classroom, but I found the media tools restricted discussion. I then changed everything. I did away with PowerPoint slides for the most part, reverting back to the blackboard and flipcharts. I focused each teaching session around a particular challenge or issue, rather than a chapter in a chronology or all-too-obvious pedagogical sequence. I required my students to write short reflection papers (responding to questions I posted) on the readings for most classes and submit them online two days before the class, and then had other students write response papers for each reflection paper the day before class. Most importantly, I would read all reflection and response papers the night before class, and based on these restructure how I would teach the session, also referring to the arguments in the papers in the classroom, essentially using these as tools to advance the discussion. It was immensely time-consuming but worked extremely well. I got teaching awards for all the classes I taught using this system. Students really loved it. But at the end it wasn’t that much “digital”, it was simply timely, responsive and immersive – perhaps these are the factors the digital natives have come to expect.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in the classroom in an “age of interruption” characterized by information overflow?

I ruthlessly try to reduce information overflow. I reduce reading materials to the essence, but require that they be read. I do not permit online access in the classroom, suggest students close laptops etc and engage in discussion rather than taking copious notes. My task (especially at the graduate level) is not to convey information, but to help structure it towards knowledge. I push my students to respond to arguments, I cold-call, I challenge. My courses are not easy, but they are (hopefully) engaging and fun, and I try to create an environment that is forgiving of crazy ideas (albeit not forgiving of laziness).

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?

Read anything and everything. Then stop. Think. For weeks. Listen to yourself, to how your brain begins to structure the information you consumed. Give it time. Let it gel. And then write – not on topics everyone else is writing on. A senior faculty member once gave me the good advice: don’t tell me what I already know or suspect, tell me something new. Be original, look out for the counter-intuitive, and – despite everything everybody is telling you – take risks.

You just mentioned the importance of taking the time to digest the information you acquire through different means. However, it seems to me that we are governed by a “metaphysics of presence,” to paraphrase Derrida, where there is less free time and fewer empty spaces for silent thinking and critical reflection. Do you think that we live in a society that maximizes the conditions for careful thinking and reflection?

I do think we live in a society in which immediacy and the present hold elevated positions that do not reflect their actual importance. Upon reflection much of the immediacy vanishes, and much of the singularity of the present gives way to a more nuanced temporal perspective. But the relentless ticking of the clock seem to have hypnotised people to stop critical thinking. I interviewed a wonderful old man once, who was a professor of Latin and Greek and a very successful fund manager. He advised me to always take a piece of Tacitus when going to the stock market, and when things seem to get out of hand to take Tacitus out and read, and act only after an hour or so has passed. He said it served him well to avoid the torture of the present. I think he has a point.

You also spoke of how teachers should help students structure information toward knowledge. How, exactly, do you achieve this inside the classroom? Do you think that institutionalizing this interpersonal practice through some form of regulation of content can be helpful?

I don’t think there is a simple formula that could be regulated. Planned systems have failed even more spectacularly at preparing its people for the future than ours. In my individual teaching context, however, I was able to achieve this in the classroom mostly by letting students respond to questions (the old Socratic dialogue), and by pushing them to discuss among themselves. It’s important though to ensure that not always the same talk in the classroom. And sometimes the chemistry simply isn’t there and it fails to work.

It appears we live in a society that tends to confound information with knowledge, and knowledge with education. Why do you think this so?

First of all it is wonderful to see that people thirst for information and now have better tools than ever before to access information. But with such powerful tools comes the responsibility to use them well. I think we fail in our educational system, and we fail in our public discourse to do just that. I believe (and yes, it is a belief) that people are capable of thoughtful discourse, of listening to and weighing different arguments, and of being pushed to “do their homework” and find out the information they desire – rather than having to “dumb down” the message. But we need to provide them with the tools, the institutional support, the educational support. We need to treat them as adults. And we need to relentlessly defend rationality and civility, especially in our times of information overload, so that people develop and fine-tune their good sense of extracting knowledge from information.

Your most recent book is Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.What can you tell us about it?

Delete is about the importance of forgetting. For millennia humans have tried (and often succeeded) to remember important things, as they biologically forgot most of what they saw, experienced, and thought. Remembering was time-consuming and expensive, and was thus used sparingly, while forgetting was natural and ubiquitous. Today, thanks to digital technology, cheap storage and retrieval and the global Internet the situation has become reversed – “remembering” is now the default. This has advantages, but also comes with a bag of challenges: it may deliver more informational power to the already powerful, make it difficult for us to forgive, prompt us to self-censor, clutter our mind with too much irrelevant information, and make it difficult for us to see the forest for the trees. It may also prompt us to take a digitally remembered past as accurate and authentic although there is no guarantee it is either, and let us neglect societal institutions of remembering and societal processes of forgetting. Delete also looks at ways to mitigate these challenges – including the idea to reintroduce forgetting, e.g. through an expiration date for information.

What are you currently working on and when is your next book coming out?

I remain fascinated (and troubled) by the information deluge we are exposed to.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralón, L. (2011). “Interview with Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger,” Figure/Ground. January 7th.
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