A reader recently pointed me to a fantastic article in the New York Times entitled The Web and the End of Forgetting which talks about the downside of a world where one’s history is permanently recorded on the web. It paints of the dangers of a world where one can never escape one’s past – where mistakes from college rear their head in interviews and where bad choices constrain the ability to start anew.
It is, frankly, a terrifying view of the world.
I also think it is both overblown and, imagines a world where the technology changes, but our social condition does not. Indeed, the reader sent me the piece because it reminded him of a talk and subsequent blog post I wrote exactly a year ago on the same topic.
But let’s take the worse case scenario at face value. While the ability to start anew is important, at times I look forward to a world where there is a little more history. A world where choices and arguments can be traced. A world of personal accountability.
Broadcast media fostered a world where one could argue one position and then, a few months later, take the exact opposite stand. Without easily accessible indexes and archives discerning these patterns was difficult, if not impossible. With digitization, that has all changed.
The Daily Show remains the archetype example of this. The entire show is predicated on having a rich archival history of all the major network and cable news broadcasts and having the capacity, on a nightly basis, to put the raw hypocrisy of pundits and politicians on display.
The danger of course, is if this is brought to the personal level. The NYT article identifies and focuses on them. But what of the upsides? In a world where reputation matters, people may become more thoughtful. It will be interesting to witness a world where grandparents have to explain to their grandchildren why they were climate change deniers on their Facebook page. Or why you did, or didn’t join a given political campaign, or protest against a certain cause.
Ultimately, I think all this remembering leads to a more forgiving society, at least in personal and familial relationships, but the world of pundits and bloggers and politicans may become tougher. Those who found themselves very much on the wrong side of history, may have a hard time living it down. The next version of the daily show may await us all. But not saying anything may not be a safe strategy either. Those who have no history, who never said anything at anytime, may not be seen relevant, or worse, could be seen as having no convictions or beliefs.
I loved the New York Times article, but it looked at society as a place where social values will remain unchanged, where we won’t adapt to our technology and place greater emphasis on new values. I can imagine a world where our children may say – how did you have friends with so little personal history? It may not be our ideal world, but then, our grandparents world wasn’t one I would have wanted to live in either.