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Wednesday, Jul 30, 2014
Commentary

Growing up on the record


Published:

We just graduated from college. We've got thousands of pictures on Instagram, conversations on Gchat and status updates on Facebook to show for it - a digital record of that long week, seemingly each fragment of thought and every step of the day we graduated.

And we, like many people, often forget that so many less important moments of our lives are cataloged in the same way. Recently, Facebook launched a sophisticated tool called Graph Search, which helps reveal information from within your social network. Such tools make it dramatically easier to unearth data about the lives of everyone we know - and people we don't. They also underscore the urgent need to define the norms that govern how this information will be used.

Ours is the first generation to have grown up with the Internet. The first generation that got suspended from school because of a photo of underage drinking posted online. The first generation that could talk in chat rooms to anyone, anywhere, without our parents knowing. The first generation that has been "tracked" and "followed" and "shared" since childhood.

All this data will remain available forever - both to the big players (tech companies, governments) and to our friends, our sort-of friends and the rest of civil society. This fact is not really new, but our generation will confront the latter on a scale beyond that experienced by previous generations.

This digital longevity raises new issues: One is that our former selves may live on beyond their real existence. It used to be that if a teenager went through "a phase," generally only their family, friends and teachers would know or remember. Those days are gone. Another issue is that false versions of your identity, suggested by disparate pieces of data, might be contrived and proposed as the real you. Thanks to technology, someone can know more about you than you know about yourself - or, at least, think that they do.

These misrepresentations matter because they can shape unfair opinions or even cause unnecessary harm. Say that as an opinionated 16-year-old, someone wrote polemical public posts about her opposition to abortion. Her views shifted during college, but she never posted an announcement of that. Then, 10 years later, she applies to teach under a pro-choice principal. The principal checks Facebook, sees her history - and then glances to his five other equally qualified applicants.

Nearly the entire lives of our generation have been cataloged and stored in servers, with the most mature and carefully thought-through utterances indistinguishable, as data, from thoughtless pre-teen rants. We gave much of this information willingly, if half-wittingly. A fact of being a young person today is that our data are out there forever, and we must find ways to deal with that.

Certainly there will be many uses for information, such as health data, that will wind up governed by law. But so many other uses cannot be predicted or legislated, and laws themselves have to be informed by values. It is therefore critical that people establish, with their actions and expectations, cultural norms that prevent their digital selves from imprisoning their real selves.

We see three possible paths: One, people become increasingly restrained about what they share and do online. Two, people become increasingly restrained about what they do, period. Three, we learn to care less about what people did when they were younger, less mature or otherwise different.

The first outcome seems unproductive. There is no longer much of an Internet without sharing, and one of the great benefits of the Internet has been its ability to nurture relationships and connections that previously had been impossible. Withdrawal is unacceptable. Fear of the digital future should not drive us apart.

The second option seems more deeply unsettling. Childhood, adolescence, college - the whole process of growing up - is, as thinkers from John Locke to Dr. Spock have written, a necessarily experimental time. Everyone makes at least one mistake, and we'd like to think that process continues into adulthood. Creativity should not be overwhelmed by the fear of what people might one day find unpalatable.

This leaves the third outcome: the idea that we must learn to care less about what people did when they were younger or otherwise different. In an area where regulations, privacy policies and treaties may take decades to catch up to reality, our generation needs to take the lead in negotiating a "cultural treaty" endorsing a new value, related to privacy, that secures our ability to have a past captured in data that is not held to be the last word but seen in light of our having grown up in a way that no one ever has before.

Growing up, that is, on the record.

Julian B. Gewirtz, who interned at Facebook in 2011, is a Rhodes scholar who plans to study global history at the University of Oxford this fall. Adam B. Kern, a von Clemm fellow, plans to study philosophy at Oxford. They graduated from Harvard College in May.

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