Reading the New York Times Sunday Magazine‘s big article today, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” I had several thoughts. The article, about online privacy and how old data can haunt us all our lives in a socially networked world, rehashes a familiar chestnut. In the age of Web 2.0, our privacy is greatly eroded. Our past misdeeds live on forever digitally, and we will be judged by them until the end of time, unable to get jobs or dates or a fresh start.
I had several reactions to this. The first was that this behavior is nothing new. Before the industrial age, we lived in small communities, where everyone knew everything about everybody, and made judgments — whether deserved or not — based on that knowledge. We still have those villages today; they have just changed form. The article idealizes past village life, stating that villagers were admonished to forget the sins of their neighbors, but whether this was actually done is not clear. I don’t think so, based on countless novels I have read about life in those villages. The article makes a metaphor of the scarlet letter, but wasn’t the scarlet letter intended as a way to make sure no one in the village forgot the sin of the past?
Human behavior hasn’t changed all that much, but our tools have. Our tools are not the problem, as these articles always seem to suggest. As if technology were some amorphous personality with its own desires and motives. Regardless of how many drunken photos are pasted on Facebook, it’s not Facebook that judges us, but one another. And if we didn’t have Facebook as the means to facilitate judgment, something else would take its place.
I would argue that these technologies are actually helping us, rather than setting us back. Sure, there is the obligatory anecdote of the person getting fired because of an indiscreet photo posted online. The frightening bugaboo of potential employers, scanning the web into the wee hours for our indiscretions, even our poor choices in books and movies, so they can decide not to hire us based on these things, is dutifully trotted out. At some point, such scrupulous employers will run out of candidates who meet their ridiculous standards, at which point, such standards will be relaxed. When almost everyone has a drunken picture of them somewhere on the web, it will cease to be scandalous. And I think that day is approaching more quickly due to all our openness.
Our social technologies have moved gossip and judgment out of the dark corners of the village and out into the bright light of day. I don’t think the solution is to find better ways to erase or hide our digital pasts. On the contrary, more openness about who we are and what we do, I think leads to better understanding of one another, and more acceptance and more tolerance. When something is hidden and secret, it becomes titillating and scandalous. When something is out in the open, it becomes commonplace. Perhaps not forgetting, rather than forgetting, is a better way to move toward a more tolerant world.