One of the greatest achievements in human history, perhaps the greatest, is the development of tools to make information persistent. Imagine the world before the invention of writing: knowledge could only be stored in living human brains. It took years and years to build up a viable collection of information in any one mind, and it could all be lost in a moment. Every useful fact had to be passed from one living person to another in an unbroken chain. Anything that was overlooked, misunderstood, or forgotten was lost. It was as though that information had never been known, meaning that it had to be discovered all over again.
With writing, information became persistent. Any knowledge that was written down could outlive its source. Moreover, the amount of information available was no longer limited to what could be memorized and recited by those dedicated to doing so. The result was an explosion of knowledge which gave rise to literature, philosophy, science, and technology. That explosion led directly, and in fairly short order, to the world we live in today.
Centuries of persistent information lie behind my writing (and your reading) this blog post.
While few (if any) of us would want to live in a world where information doesn’t persist, most of us wish that some information was a bit less persistent. From today’s headlines:
Tera Myers, ex-porn star, loses teaching gig in St. Louis, after student discovers her X-rated past
A St. Louis high school student is getting an “A” from authorities after discovering a teacher’s X-rated past.
Tera Myers, 38, was put on administrative leave at Parkway North High School this week after a student inquired about pornographic films Myers starred in during the 1990s.
Officials didn’t know about Myers’ past, which included a suspension five years ago from a Paducah, Ky., school for her role in the adult films.
While in Kentucky, Myers taught under a different name, Tericka Dye.
“Anybody who has been in my classroom could tell you how much I love teaching and how much I love these students, and that should be what matters more than anything in my past,” she said in May 2006.
Time was, anyone who needed to make a fresh start in life could simply find a new town to live in and, if needed, a new name to go by. Your past was truly the past, and a lot less inclined to follow you around than it is today. But now the eraser is gone. Information persists not because we deliberately make it persist, or even because we want it to, but simply because the information infrastructure we have created is so incredibly good at doing what we designed it to do.
Internet users misunderstand this principle at their own peril. By now we’ve all heard that the Internet is forever and that you shouldn’t write anything in the comments section of the most obscure blog (or even in most email messages) that you wouldn’t happily publish on a billboard next to a huge photo of yourself. But people continue not to heed this advice, and the damage done to friendships, marriages, families, institutions, organizations, and individual careers is incalculable.
Efforts to mitigate this damage generally concentrate around the concept of privacy. It’s reasonable to suggest that there be some kind of firewall between private and public information. For example, if the Internet didn’t support fairly reliable security where individual financial information is concerned, e-commerce couldn’t exist.
What it’s unreasonable to expect is that any information that ever passes outside that firewall could somehow become “private” once again. A news story from November of last year:
The commission said consumers should be informed “in a clear and transparent way” about how their data will be used. They should also have the right to fully delete digital information, like social networking profiles, and should be informed when their data has been used in unlawful ways, the commission added.
That sounds great. Unfortunately, if that profile information was shared with anyone, at any time, then there’s no way ever to be certain that it has been “fully deleted.” The EU might as well pass regulations on the un-ringing of bells. If one user — one of your “friends” — takes a screen shot of that profile and saves it, it can resurface decades from now.
The age of transparency is ultimately an age where we learn to balance trust and responsibility. It is an age requiring great deliberation concerning how we communicate. Individuals need to be more aware of what information they are sharing, who they are sharing it with, and why. Organizations need to be more aware of what information they are blocking (or attempting to block), who they are trying to keep from accessing it, and why.
Mistakes made either way may not be correctable. And they will be with us for a long time to come.
UPDATE: Thanks for the link(s), Glenn. Stephen Gordon has some additional thoughts over at the Speculist. Also, for those who missed it, our pal Skippy took a very different stance just the other day.