The biggest problem in predicting the future isn’t envisaging what technologies will emerge – it is forecasting how individuals and communities will respond to these technologies. In other words I often find people treat technology as a variable, but social values as a constant. Consequently, as they peer into tomorrow, technology is examined only in terms of how it will change (and make easier) tasks – and not on how it will cause social values and relationships to shift. By treating social values as a constant we assume that technology will conform to today’s values. In truth, it is often the reverse that is the case – social values change and come to reflect the technology we use.
For example, I find people ask me if I’m nervous about blogging since, 20 years hence, someone may dig up a post and use to demonstrate how my thinking or values were flawed. Conversely, a friend suggested that social networks will eventually “auto-delete” photos so that any embarrassing pictures that might have ended up online will not be searchable. (Let’s put aside the fact that a truly embarrassing picture will likely get copied to several places.) In short, these friends cannot imagine a future where your past is accessible and visible to a wider group of people. In their view an archived personal history is anathema as it violates some basic expectations of anonymity (not to be confused with privacy) they are accustomed to. In their minds our mistakes, misadventures or even poor fashion choices need to be forgotten (or hidden in the vast grayness of history) in order for us to be successful. If not, we will somehow become social pariahs or certain doors may forever be closed to us.
To put it another way, it presumes that our future employers, social circles and even society in general will punish people who’ve ever had a thought others disagree with or will refuse to hire someone who’s ever had a embarrassing photo of themselves posted to the internet.
Really? If this is the case then the jobs of tomorrow are going to be filled by either the most conservative and/or timid people or (more troubling, but less surprising) by those best able to cover their tracks. I’m not sure either of these traits are what I’m want in a prospective employee. Should I hire someone who is afraid to publicly share independent thoughts? Do I want to work with someone too risk-averse to push a boundary or have fun? Or worse, should I contract someone who is highly adept at covering up their mistakes? If the jobs of the future are going to require creativity, originality and integrity why would I hire for the opposite traits?
Perhaps those whose lives are more visible online will be discriminated against. But it is also possible the inverse could be true. Those who have no online history have no discernible, verifiable track record, no narrative about how their values and thinking has evolved over time. While such a history will be filled with flaws and mistakes, it will at least be open and visible, whereas those who have lived offline will have a history that is opaque and verifiable only by their own handpicked references.
If anything, I suspect the internet is going to create a society that is more honest and forgiving. We will be returning to a world of thin anonymity – a world where it is difficult to escape from the choices you’ve made in the past. But the result won’t be a world where fewer people take risks, it will be a world that recognizes those risks were necessary and expected.
What would such a world look like? Well naturally it is going to be hard to imagine, because it is a world that would likely make you deeply uncomfortable (think of how hard it would have been 25 years ago to imagine a large swath of the population being comfortable with online dating). But there are perhaps microcosm we can look at. While dysfunctional in many ways the culture of Silicon Valley – in how it treats failure – may be a good example. While I’ve not lived in the valley, everything I’ve read about it suggests that it is hard to be taken seriously unless you’ve taken risks and have failed – it demonstrates your willingness to try and learn. It is a community where it is easy to look into everyone else’s past – either by searching online or simply asking around. In this regard Silicon Valley is deeply honest – people own their successes and their failures – and it is a place that, in regards to business, is forgiving. Compared to many places on the planet, past failures (depending of course on the nature of depth of the error) are forgivable and even seen as a necessary right of passage.
All this isn’t to say that we should be limiting people’s ability for anonymity or privacy online. If someone wants their photos auto-deleted after 5 years, please let them do it. But let us at least always preserve choice – let us not architect our technology to solely conform to today’s social norms as we may discover we will be willing to make different choices in a few years.