In our age of technological upheaval, grand statements about what the internet means for human experience have become commonplace. The title of Jeffrey Rosen?s article in last week?s New York Times Magazine certainly follows that pattern: ?The Web Means the End of Forgetting.? But behind the declarative absolute, Rosen?s article is an unusually careful take on the effects of ?a world where the internet records everything and forgets nothing?where every online photo, status update, Twitter post, and blog entry by and about us can be stored forever.? It?s also a hopeful essay, in search of solutions to the conundrums of being digitally laid bare.
The internet has expanded the scope of the public exposure that used to be reserved for celebrities (and later politicians). Employers deny applicants jobs because of embarrassing photos found with a simple search; governments flag individuals because of ?discussion-board conversations and membership in controversial groups,? sometimes preventively denying visas to less-than-dangerous travelers; and relentless, expansive web-based media outlets can humiliate people with ease, often ruining their reputations based on nothing but a spurious rumor.
Although Rosen is a legal scholar, his concerns go beyond how law will fit into an age of mass exposure. The internet, he writes, ?is threatening, at an almost existential level, our ability to control our identities; to preserve the option of reinventing ourselves and starting anew; to overcome our checkered pasts.? The liberating potential of the modern age?an age in which humans gained the promise of free movement, socially and physically?is curtailed by one of its later products: our vast collective dumping grounds of personal data, or colloquially, ?social networking sites.? That?s an exaggerated and one-sided take on the situation, but with more than a kernel of truth to it.
Rosen outlines a number of ways out of the situation. So far, legal measures aimed at recapturing privacy and individual control have made small inroads, with as many failures as victories. As it always does, the market has crept in, with companies serving customers who want to scrub the grime off their public personas (and who can afford it?companies like ReputationDefender have charged many thousands to those whose names have been particularly besmirched). Programmers have begun to develop technologies that enforce web-forgetting, writing code into electronic data (like photos) which will automatically ??self-destruct? after a specified period of time.? But such technologies will leave many gaps. And tools are only useful if we use them. What, horror of horrors, if we opt out? The self-generated, circulating social power of nineteenth-century democracy as described by Tocqueville doesn?t hold a candle to our public self-saturation on the internet.
So rather than legal-political, capitalistic, or technological solutions, Rosen predicts a change in consciousness: the creation of new internet humans. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said as much: ?People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds but more openly and with more people, and that social norm is just something that has evolved over time.? According to Rosen, large numbers of even young people, Facebook?s premier clientele, disagree with Zuckerberg and have pushed for greater privacy controls, but registration numbers for Facebook continue to rise?the site reached half a billion users worldwide this July. So Rosen asks ?us to explore new ways of living in a world that is slow to forgive?:
Perhaps all of us will become more forgiving of drunken Facebook pictures?[As] all of us stumble over the challenges of living in a world without forgetting, we need to learn new forms of empathy, new ways of defining ourselves without reference to what others say about us and new ways of forgiving one another for the digital trails that will follow us forever.
Why do we have to change for the web?why not the other way around? Joshua Brustein?s recent article in the ?Week in Review? suggests that we aren?t entirely to blame for opening ourselves to the buffeting winds of the web. Brustein argues that Facebook most closely resembles a utility, or a service ?everyone uses, no matter how much people dislike the companies that provide them.? Facebook is our means of connecting in these times. If someone my age (twenty-two) forsakes it, they won?t keep up with the same number of past acquaintances, they?ll miss hearing about parties, and perhaps most affectingly, they?ll feel a self-exile from a shared space of photographs of friends, micro-interactions, and candid statements of mood and activity?small push-backs, however troubling, against alienation.
But if Rosen is right, and if pessimistic chroniclers of Facebook have some point, then it is a utility with potentially negative consequences. And if it?s a necessary service, we have less power to resist the legal repercussions that might result from it?not to mention the loss of personal privacy, the gradual lessening of offline time (and offline socialization), and even a diminished capacity for deeper thinking.
Studies such as Rosen?s run up against limits that the author cannot control: new technologies quickly outrun our understanding of them, and the process accelerates unabated. The group-authored ?Intellectual Situation? in the Spring 2010 issue of n+1 begins with an account of the ideology of the web (?webism?), which dates far earlier than the proliferation of the internet in the early and mid-1990s. Web ideologues couldn?t predict the course the internet revolution would take; it was, like all revolutions, the product of both material developments and individual and collective actions. And, ?like the Russian [Revolution], it will seem in retrospect?may already seem?like a smooth inexorable process, but was in fact a series of discrete advances.? It began with the development of easy to use web browsers, email interfaces, and blogging platforms. Few imagined precisely what would follow: the production of better search technology and increasingly sophisticated advertising; the addition of streaming and downloadable photos, video, and music; and the arrival of wireless handheld devices, ?[freeing] the web and its user from the shackles of the deskbound networked computer.?
If our internet experience today would be barely comprehensible to the web denizens of 1995, then how can we know what?s soon in store for us? Predictions of what?s next for the web?and of what effects it will have on both individual and society?can only be contained by the limits of both fictional and nonfictional prophets of web utopia and doom. Many phenomena we dream up will never come to be, but some events we don?t foresee probably will.
Even if we restrict ourselves to examining the internet?s current makeup, the balance between the good and bad aspects of the age is difficult to calculate. The pitfalls and new avenues go far beyond Rosen’s theme, to take just some of what?s recently been discussed. We?ll make conceptual connections far more quickly but become more reliant on quickly accessible technologies and less able to sustain attention for long periods of time. We?ll stay in touch with a greater number of people but perhaps fewer in an emotionally rich way. We?ll have access to ever more bytes of information, but the depth of our reading (and the depth of our writing) could diminish. We?ll be able to sell and buy everything, and fast, but we?ll also steal a great deal (at least by contemporary intellectual property standards). And let?s not exclude political considerations: we?ll have new opportunities for organizing and communicating and forming bonds of solidarity around the world, but also ways of monitoring dissidents and the troublesome, and even ways of promoting hatred and violence. The internet’s tentacles reach everywhere, and in ways we often don’t expect.
For now, we cannot escape it, and for the most part, we do not want to. But there are conspicuous, and romantic, exceptions, like cartoonist James Strum’s ?Life Without the Web? series at Slate, or Gary Shteyngart’s recent reflection on his desire to take leave of his iPhone, his Twitter feed, and his Facebook account:
I dream of leaving, too. Heading upstate in the summer time with a trunk full of books, watching Roosevelt Island sweep by in a rainstorm, I wake up from the techno-fugue state and remember who I am, the 37 analog years that went into creating this particular human being. Upstate I will train for my vocation, novel-writing, by tearing through the Russian classics that gave me my start, reading up on those frigid lovelorn Moscow and Petersburg winters while summer ants crawl up my shins. In the meantime, I will start conjuring my next book, one that with any luck may still be read on paper by live human beings five years from now.
Those who care deeply (and worry) about the intersection of technology, politics, and human life couldn’t do much better than stepping back from the electronic blur to read Shteyngart’s latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story. It captures, with both awe and terror, our current predicaments through an old genre exercise: imagining a familiar place (New York City) in a near future where current social developments have gone awry. It’s convincing in its assault on our worst habits; but it also makes the case that, underneath the glittering but emotionally dull surfaces of social networking, a self remains. And not just any self: on Shteyngart’s account, we are still capable of love, caring, solidarity, spontaneity, and loyalty–even on the world wide web.