The Internet Never Forgets
By Wil Forbis
So here's an interesting bit of trivia: Acid Logic is closing in on 20 years of online publication*. This might explain the festive spirit you feel in the air, the extra skip in your step.
*It's possible that we've already passed the mark. I don't know because I have only a vague idea of when I began publishing. The archives go back to 1999 but there are several pieces with no date, so it all gets a bit blurry.
I'll take a moment to divulge something that has always amazed me about my work with this magazine. Over the years, I've written a number of articles that many would consider to be in poor taste or even offensive. I've penned pieces lampooning individuals and groups, I've used language considered "salty" and I've confessed to the macabre, politically incorrect thoughts that percolate in the corners of my mind. Yet I've experienced relatively little blowback for this. Friends or lovers haven't deserted me, employers haven't fired me or put me on notice. If anything, I've been a bit frustrated with how few feathers I've ruffled.
But that fear has always simmered in the back of my head. Could someone come across something I wrote years past and become enraged enough to try and make me pay for it? It's not out of the range of possibilities: an acid logic contributor (who shall go unnamed) did lose a job over their writings.
My awareness of this risk has increased over the past decade or so as I've watched certain contingents of the online world sharpen their teeth by going after folks who have committed offenses in blog posts or social media. Often these onslaughts are politically motivated, usually but not exclusively from the left. Usually some rube posts a comment, blog post or tweet which---minutes or years later---gets flagged as problematic by a reader. Rage over the offending statement goes viral and the original poster finds themself infamous overnight.
It would seem like this sort of thing can only get more and more prevalent. We are, after all, doing more of our living online---interacting through social media, communicating via email, posting videos on youtube and facebook. One poorly worded comment could be all it takes to raise the ire of your boss or hordes of internet activists. It could even be something you don't even remember saying. The internet, as they say, never forgets.
Many of us still think that we can keep our public and personal selves separate online, serving one persona up for bosses and casual acquaintances and another for friends and family. We dispense information about our politics, personal beliefs, and even our sexual behaviors on a “need to know” basis. But it's not hard to envision ways that technology could ferret out our private selves. Imagine an app that could quickly compile every social media or blog post you ever made and then search through it for flagged or controversial keywords. Are you confident everything you've ever said online wouldn't cause offense to someone, somewhere (possibly your boss or someone who has a grudge against you for whatever reason)? Or what about a technology that pilfers through your friends list and makes a determination of your character or predilections based on the interests/statements made by people you associate with? Or, imagine a technology that visually scans a person's face and instantly identifies them by their social media presence and then tracks their online commentary and lists organizations they associate with. (So, you could see someone in person and instantly know that they are an ardent Marxist and member of the N.R.A.)
There's been a lot of commentary on how politically stratified we are becoming and this kind of technology could only make it worse. Most of us have had the experience of meeting a person, liking them (maybe even dating them), and then discovering they hold political or ideological beliefs we disagree with. With the technology described above, people would never have to risk interacting with (or hiring, or screwing) their ideological enemies. They could shut things down before anyone even says "hi."
Tech guru and author Jaron Lanier has long lambasted how the Internet objectifies people in the sense that it reduces them to checkboxes that can be ticked off in a database. Male? Check. Gay? Check. Republican? Check. Anti-immigration? Check. Jazz aficionado? Check. The nuance, the caveats and the subtleties that make human beings interesting get lost.
Some readers may be thinking, "I don't care about any of this. I’ve never said an ill word about anyone in my life, my ethics are unquestionable and I am a prince/princess among men. No one could fault me!" To which I ask, "but will this always be the case?" Anyone paying attention has certainly noticed that the rules of what is labeled acceptable are rapidly changing. We’re all aware how #metoo has caused society to re-evaluate previously forgivable sexual transgressions like Bill Clinton's seduction of Monica Lewinsky or various rock stars screwing teenagers. For a long time the expression “white supremacist” referred to Klansmen and their ilk, now it's used by some to refer to any white person with a pulse. (When even "The Simpsons" is accused of racism, you know times are a changing.) And the rise of the transgender movement has unseated long-held and conventional notions about gender and identity.
I don’t object to most of the conversations this rapid revision of morals has led to though I do worry we are losing our ability to actually converse about, or at least tolerate different points of view on, these topics. But I also suspect that these changes are just the beginning. There's a simple observation that should give anyone pause: judged by the standards of today, 90% of the people of the past would be found to be moral cretins. How then will we be judged by the standards of tomorrow?
What seemingly innocuous actions of today might be called into question in the near future? As I've argued before, I think animal rights will become a bigger issue in the future and meat-eaters (such as myself) will find themselves on trial in the court of public opinion. I also think individual actions that contribute to global warming (traveling by plane for example) will earn fiery condemnation.)
People in the past had the pleasure of not being constantly under a microscope designed to fete out their moral failings. If you made an offhand comment that might offend someone, it wasn't tied to you for life. But now, with the internet and technology that can filter through its contents, we live in an age where people can be glued to their past, forever marked as a sinner of one type or another. And the list of potential sins grows longer daily. It doesn't bode well for human sanity.
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.orgVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.