The Permanent Record

So Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt wisely warned that the youthful mistakes of teenagers will now follow them forever. Upon reading this, I couldn’t help but feel that this discussion about what we post online is about more than just privacy.

I spent a few years as a college admissions counselor, and I can say with confidence that rarely — with the exception of the most extreme cases — did “marks in the permanent record” follow students in a manner warned by overzealous principals and worried parents. Unless it affects you academically, or you were involved in criminal activity, it doesn’t really matter if you got detention in seventh grade for a middle school prank. Truthfully, the only permanent record that matters is your resume, your transcript, and your criminal record.

However, Schmidt is now suggesting that the mythical permanent record may not be such a myth. Social media and the ease of web searches have created an enduring account of an individual’s life. While Schmidt worries about reckless teenagers, there’s a growing phenomenon that makes me think it’s small children who, in the long run, will have to deal with this in ways we have yet to imagine.

I have quite a few friends with babies and young children right now. As such, my Facebook feed is inundated with pictures, stories, quotes, updates, prayer requests, frustrations, and just about everything else that comes with being a young parent. On one hand, for followers, friends, and family members, the convenience of these posts provides a level of connectedness never before possible. It’s nice to be able to include an encouraging message on a high school friend’s post about their sick toddler, or to “like” a distant college friend’s cute picture of their child’s birthday party. It’s even better for grandparents to get to enjoy the day-to-day achievements of their grandchildren in real time. These kinds of interactions were not possible last century, or even last decade.

What makes me curious about this desire to document every moment, which is creating a true permanent record, is what will this constant, running account of a person’s life mean for them twenty years from now? Yes, current privacy concerns are important, but it’s a much bigger story that that. What happens in a college admissions meeting or potential employer’s office when an applicant tries to tell the typical, expected interview story about how he or she is a hard worker, only to be met with a detailed profile, based on twenty years of life activity as described in social media posts and web-based records, that would suggest the individual actually has a propensity for laziness and procrastination? How does one respond to that?

In fact, companies won’t need to do interviews anymore. Human relations departments will be able to make hiring and firing recommendations based solely on the constant, complete, permanent record of an individual. From baby’s first sonogram picture to their latest post-grad exploits, a clever software engineer will be able to put together a seemingly complete psychological and professional profile. It will be a dream for HR reps, admissions professionals, the insurance industry, healthcare, and anyone else who feels like they need to know who you are, what you’ve done, and what you could do.

Yes, it’s a fantasy, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

In addition, I wonder what direct effect constant documentation will have on children as they grow up. One challenge every documentarian faces is how to document a situation without affecting it. In other words, the mere presence of cameras changes the reality of the situation. My wife tells me that one of her two-year-old nephew’s favorite activities is to go find family members’ smart phones, because he knows they will be full of pictures and videos of him. He likes to watch the videos of himself. While the self-absorbed, curious nature of a young child suggests this is normal behavior, the idea that children are probably aware of just how much their lives are documented makes me wonder about what effect this will have on their childhood.

As this recent study suggests, narcissism is on the rise among incoming college students. Despite lower test scores, confidence is at an all-time high. I can only imagine how kids who grow up as the stars of the show, every aspect of their lives documented, doted upon, and broadcast online, will score on future evaluations of narcissism. What effect will the mere presence of cameras have on a child’s life? Yes, consumer video cameras have existed for thirty years, and growing up I sat through and was featured in more than a few family vacation videos, but it’s nothing like the ubiquity of lenses kids are met with today. While it is admittedly circumstantial evidence, if my Facebook feed is any indicator, kids are never far from a lens and never far from being published online.

So what do we do? Admittedly, I don’t know the answer. I am not sure I even understand the full scope of the issue. Maybe we’ll end up being much better off for having such a complete permanent record. However, it’s definitely an issue that requires further research and some thoughtful scrutiny.

In the meantime, maybe we could do with a few less embarrassing or awkward pictures of your beautiful children. It might end up on their permanent record and keep them from getting into private school.

Actually, it is on their permanent record. What the private school does with it has yet to be seen.


Photo Credit:     NADEN/REUTERS


2 thoughts on “The Permanent Record

  1. Interesting take on privacy. As a surveyor I deal with the public record from several generations on a fairly regular basis. I think that our documentation using things like Facebook will end up being useful in ways we can’t currently imagine. For instance I don’t think that Google thought that their street view and aerial photos would be helpful for surveyors, but I use it almost every day in estimating and completing surveys. I think that there will be many court cases over the next 50 years about what we really own when it comes to our privacy, and I generally trust those judges to be intelligent and reasonable.

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