Persistence

24

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:

E.U. Says It Will Overhaul Privacy Regulations

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.

Or tomorrow.

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.

Scene from a Schoolteacher's Past -- There's No Un-Ringing the Bell

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.

22 Comments

  1. 2011-10-29 17:36:47

    Fascinating to pick up on a blog after many have contributed - a snapshot of the diversity and disparate thinking of interesting, thinking people! In response to the idea that society will eventually adopt an acceptance of the 'adolescent' footprint left online - I know that I would still be looking at the best person for job and the time of employment, and when it comes down to the wire between several candidates, it is going to be the one with the cleanest online rep! So many are leaving 'adolescent' trails of pics and posts (or their friends are uploading) Those who have the edge will be the ones who already grasp the notion of a private life, one that has integrity offline as well as online - being true to one's self - Already, management of reputation, real and digital, ought to be a skill being explored/developed in schools, High Schools, Uni's, and parenting classes. Persistence of info, speed of retrieval of info, and breadth of info are overwhelming today. All three aspects operating simultaneously and ubiquitously. The issue of putting your real name or a pseudonym comes down to personal choice for a myriad of reasons but let's consider the 'hive mentality' v's losing the individual voice. By standing beside our work, comments, content etc, we own it. We bring a humanness to the stark black text or, image, or film, or music, or other content of any kind. Individual ownership and humanity are integral to our future.

  2. 2011-04-04 15:01:08

    More persistence in the news. Harrow teacher 'in tears' after pupils find topless photos: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/8419093/Harrow-teacher-in-tears-after-pupils-find-topless-photos.html

  3. 2011-03-15 23:25:03

    I'm not familiar with 'Publius's' situation. Those who work in military intelligence have a valid reason for not publishing under their real name, very few of the rest of us do, in my view. As Dennis Prager points out, clarity is more important than unity: if we concede the public square of discourse to 'get along', we are complicit in our own oppression. 'Taxpayer' works in academia, so do I. His estimation of the monolithic Leftism of his working community is accurate, and he is correct that he would suffer consequences if he exposed his honest views. He should welcome those consequences, and bear them gladly: if persecuted unjustly, his stature would only increase. Taking on that burden with grace would encourage other conservatives, and force the oppressors to examine themselves. Let's stop cowering in fear, gentlemen. At any instant, our mortal life might be taken from us: several thousand of my neighbors died in a matter of minutes last Friday. How many of them went with regrets? How important do you think their salary was to them in those last terrifying moments? I'm sure to a man, they reached out to their god in desperation and pleading. If you had fifteen minutes left on this earth, what values and virtues would you want those left behind you to remember you by? If this morning was to be your last, does getting drunk and posting photos making a fool of yourself still seem like a worthwhile pursuit? Some have written about making mistakes and seeking forgiveness. Let us remember that real forgiveness, like life itself, is first a gift from our Creator. Among our neighbors, if a remorseful person sought forgiveness with contrition, they deserve a second chance to establish a respectable character. Neither should we condemn ourselves out of fear or selfish pride: sincere repentance instantly brings new life and hope. Stand up and Do the Right Thing, with grace, humility and honesty. Sign your full name. If your thoughts cause you shame, don't publish them, and seek better thoughts. If your conduct causes you remorse, stop engaging in it, and pursue virtuous deeds instead. Do not be ruled by fear of other men: rather fear G-d, and honor all with your honest conviction. Sign your full name. Best regards, Peter Warner. Proverbs 8: 35~36 Matthew Chapter 10

  4. [...] So, if the Internet’s memory is persistent, are we photographers of the nude ethically in the wrong if we do not warn our subjects that what we do today may haunt them the rest of their lives?  Read this. [...]

  5. 2011-03-12 21:49:45

    I'm not worried about the higher ed bubble. Having been an adjunct for over 20 years, I'm used to chronic job insecurity. I have many skills that I've used in decent jobs outside academia, so I'm not worried about finding another job should the need arise. However, I truly love teaching--never wanted to be among the pontificating professoriate. When the bubble bursts, though, I think it will be the pontificators who'll find themselves out of work. Those of us who do the teaching might just find ourselves still employed.

  6. 2011-03-12 21:26:34

    I expect people in the future people will be a lot more forgiving of "reasonable mistakes." Not because human nature will change, but because EVERYONE will have a record. No one will be able to pretend they're perfect, because we'll all have Facebook accounts and pictures posted by friends proving we're not. Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.

  7. 2011-03-12 20:57:35

    There are the written laws, and the unwritten laws, and the later are just as binding as the former, and more dangerous to cross because they are unofficial and yet apply because a majority thinks they should. Sometimes the unwritten rules are so deeply embedded that's it not even safe to question them openly...and people violate them at their peril.

  8. 2011-03-12 20:42:58

    First of all, I think XKCD already brilliantly captured my approach to whether or not I should use my real name, etc: http://xkcd.com/137/ Second, the problem here is not that she was a porn star or that it is easy these days to find out she used to be a porn star. The problem is the idiot employer who apparently is going to fire here based on something that has nothing to do with her qualifications or abilities as a teacher. I've seen the opposite concern -- where people I've known have been concerned their very public and very conservative views would hurt them when applying for positions at places considered generally more liberal (public universities, etc.) I can't imagine looking to hire someone and not doing so based on something as idiotic as that. The one thing I'm always amazed to hear is people who will say something like, "those photos of you drunk at a party in college will keep you from getting a job." Really? I've never been drunk, but it is my experience that a vast majority of Americans have, and a large majority apparently on multiple occasions. So the knowledge that you've been drunk at some point in your life would really influence a hiring decision? Really?

  9. 2011-03-12 18:20:51

    I advise my young relatives to never post anything on the internet using their real name unless it's "I like puppies," and even then prepare to be denied jobs by pinch-faced HR cat ladies. And I'm serious. I never post under my real name any more. I was asked a few years ago to take over management of a large and lucrative porn site. The salary offered was four times (!) my current income. But if I was found out, the impact on my life would have been devastating--loss of my current job, expulsion from the various political and fraternal organizations I belong to. Twenty years ago I might have gone for something like that, in the fairly reasonable expectation I'd be able to keep it sub-rosa. Nowadays? Way too risky.

  10. 2011-03-12 17:21:37

    I have a name that is literally the only one in the world. If I signed my real name and people didn't like my viewpoint, it could be bad news. For example, I absolutely despise unions and all they stand for. How many times could I address that viewpoint without endangering my, and my family's well-being?

  11. 2011-03-12 16:04:18

    Taxpayer, It’s sad, but true, that freedom of speech does not exist in academia. Which means that 'academia' is no longer really academia. Should I lie and post liberal pablum under my real name, in the name of “transparency”? Your best bet is to pretty much say nothing. Let them assume you share their views, even if you don't confirm it for them. My advice would be to read up on the imminent bursting of the higher-education bubble, and position yourself accordingly to survive it, or even thrive from it. The world of academia is about to get the credit card bill for their decades of devolution from true education down to lefty indoctrination.

  12. 2011-03-12 16:00:42

    I agree. A porn star is not necessarily a bad person. A woman who divorces three times, given how anti-male the court system is, almost certainly IS a bad person.

  13. 2011-03-12 13:38:29

    Regarding Richard Fagin's comment: 'The author seems to find this somewhat alarming, and while fully admitting the privacy issues created by searchability and accessibility, I believe these new features will ultimately save "government of the people, by the people and for the people."' Only if the searchability and accessibility work both ways. At the moment, we're mostly dealing with the informational equivalent of a one-way mirror. Governments and their agents have a high degree of access into ordinary citizens' data. Sadly, the reverse is not true.

  14. 2011-03-12 13:35:23

    Isn't it illegal or something for kids to be researching porn?

  15. 2011-03-12 13:05:23

    As a movie politician once said, "I have friends who support "A" and I have friends who are against "A". I'm standing firmly with my friends! Actually, all of the comments here go a great way toward elucidating the complexity of the issue of privacy. All the way from Scott McNealy's, "You have no privacy! Get over it." - to the secrecy seeking, "Two can keep a secret, if one is dead." But, imagine, if secrecy was absolutely impossible, "crime" would be absolutely impossible to hide. And this IS the direction of history. But getting there is not going to be smooth. And the transformation of society along the way will be at least as transformative as the creation of writing prompted.

  16. 2011-03-12 12:46:26

    I'm a political and philosophical conservative who teaches at the college level. If I sign my name to my conservative ideas on a public forum, I'll lose my job. It's sad, but true, that freedom of speech does not exist in academia. (See thefire.org for heaps of evidence.) So should I avoid participating in public dialogue of any kind in order to save my livelihood? Should I lie and post liberal pablum under my real name, in the name of "transparency"?

  17. 2011-03-12 12:23:22

    This teacher's unfortunate employment action is a clear example of the downside of information persistence. But information persistence has existed as long has there has been writing. What is new is the searchability and accessibility of persistent information. The author seems to find this somewhat alarming, and while fully admitting the privacy issues created by searchability and accessibility, I believe these new features will ultimately save "government of the people, by the people and for the people." For whatever reasons, pre-internet information outlets have de facto consipred with agents of government to propose and/or impose restrictions on freedom of people to act as they please (with the limitation of no harm to anyone else). The searchability and accesibility of persistent information is making quite public this de fact conspriacy and has motivated ordinary citizens to take action to defend themselves from such impositions. You can always find an example of how a beneficial thing hurts somebody (this is after all how TV news broadcasts stay in business), but the net benefits so outweigh the occasional individual harm, that I for one, don't want to go backward.

  18. 2011-03-12 11:13:08

    What an A-hole that student must be (assuming she is a good teacher). I guess that is why "authorities" are giving the student an A. Hope his peers now shun him appropriately.

  19. 2011-03-12 10:53:30

    Peter Warner (if that is your real name), would you be happier if "Publius" hadn't been able to write the Federalist Papers? Anonymity is necessary for any number of reasons. What she should have said is "That is not me, and unless you can prove it in court beyond a reasonable doubt I am going to file enough criminal and civil charges to bankrupt you, the school board, and your family." Make them prove it. The bottom line is that if it is no longer possible to reform one's life, then people probably have nothing to lose once they've "made a mistake." You will not like the society that creates.

  20. 2011-03-12 10:52:41

    So why is that a disqualification to teach in a public institution? She didn't break any laws did she? If a profession is legal, as porongraphy is now (it really wasn't before say, 1965 or so) how can it be a bar? If a school board decided being a garbageman disqualified you (don't want kids around the guy that was around that stinky garbage) would that be legal?

  21. 2011-03-12 10:47:23

    Peter Warner is right! You really should always use your real name.

  22. 2011-03-12 09:16:08

    Phil Bowmaster wrote: '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.' That is wise, and I agree entirely. The best way to ensure that we write only what we are willing to stand beside, as you describe it, is actually quite simple: Always sign your real name to your articles and comments. It's remarkable how having an anonymous tag to hide behind lowers our self-restraint and civility. It's obvious how it destroys our credibility, which might even encourage worse behavior. Be honest, be sincere, be honorable: sign your real (full) name to whatever you publish. Don't hide, and don't regret. Best regards, Peter Warner.

  23. 2011-03-12 08:32:07

    There's a young, attractive, female teacher in my daughter's school system who's on her third husband in about 8 years. I'd rather have an ex-porn star teaching my kids than a serial hooker.

  24. [...] Persistence | Transparency Revolution - Transparency Revolution [...]

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  2. [...] So, if the Internet’s memory is persistent, are we photographers of the nude ethically in the wrong if we do not warn our subjects that what we do today may haunt them the rest of their lives?  Read this. [...]

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