[Note: I am back. After a three month hiatus, during which travel and other obligations made it rather hard to post, I am back, and have prepared a number of interesting posts for the upcoming weeks. Thanks for hanging in and being so patient!]
In the twenty odd years since its inception, the World Wide Web has proven to be a most revolutionary innovation, enabling human cooperation on a previously unimaginable scale. At the fulcrum of this massive cooperation machine, we find the ever more ubiquitous social networks and other socially enabled sites, which enable us to exchange information and connect to each other in an unprecedented manner.
We maintain contact with friends and family, reconnect to ever more long lost classmates and colleagues, discover previously unknown relatives, and even expand our professional networks, seek jobs and recruit clients with ease, whereas as recently as fifteen years ago, we still needed to rely mainly on printed phone books and classified ads.
And yet, a malaise is setting in. Repeated stories of job applications denied after HR managers uncovered compromising personal pages, as well as repeated privacy breaches potentially exposing users to identity theft is making users more wary. According to a recent American Customer Satisfaction Index, the company that has come to personify the social web, Facebook, is now among the ten most distrusted major brands, right along with banks, utilities and airlines. Europeans, who tend to take their privacy more seriously, probably trust Facebook even less.
While Facebook’s repeated violations of their user’s privacy is arguably chiefly to blame for that company’s sinking reputation, it would be narrow minded to blame it all on one company. Google, for example, is facing increased pressure from courts and legislatures to incorporate a right to be forgotten. It rather seems like we are slowly discovering the long term impact of a profoundly interconnected world.
The internet has developed at breakneck speeds, and while the benefits of those evolving technologies become readily apparent, the cost of this societal shift, its dark side, so to speak, is not immediately perceived. Massive server farms bringing us nearly instant search results have earned Google, Bing, Facebook et al. a quasi divine quality. Paraphrasing the Jewish High Holiday liturgy, we are becoming weary of the internet, “for there is there is no forgetfulness before the throne of Google’s, Bing’s and Facebook’s glory.” However, unlike G”d, the court of public opinion does not forgive. Suddenly, an ill conceived prank or a rowdy party from back in secondary school or university can come back a decade later to haunt upstanding, contrite people.
Consumers and legislatures nowadays seek technical and legislative solutions to this problem. This is legitimate, but despite all technical and legislative protections we may develop, the problem won’t go away, because it is, first and foremost a societal, not a technical problem.
Years ago, people would never have considered putting up their most compromising pictures on public bulletin boards, nor would they even have captured all of it on film. If something did reach the papers, it was rapidly forgotten, as there was no practical, cost efficient way to keep such information easily accessible. Only the most famous and most notorious could count on their sins and missteps being recorded and remembered.
Nowadays, we must learn to live on the ever watchful, never forgetting, hardly forgiving public eye. But is that a bad thing?
Rabbi Judah the Prince, the Jewish sage who redacted an early key work of Jewish Oral Law, the Mishna, in 212 CE, gave the following advice: Reflect on three things and you will never come to sin: Know what is above you – a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and all your deeds recorded in a book. That advice could have been issued today. While in many quarters it may not be fashionable to label any improprieties as sins, whistleblowers and those otherwise belaboring to increase transparency in government and in the marketplace will readily admit that by making it harder to hide crime, this kind of transparency contributed to a more law abiding, more just society.
In fact, the ubiquitous nature of the internet and the speed by which bad publicity can spread through the social networks empowers consumers against what may otherwise be faceless corporations. The transparency which the net engenders levels the playing field somewhat between large and small players, between producers armed with marketing departments and the consumers armed with the social slingshots.
But is there a downside to this transparency? Returning to the above citation from the 2nd-3rd century rabbinical sage, is it as desirable for the “seeing eye” and the “hearing ear” to exist on earth as it is for us to realize there is one in heaven? Does extreme transparency only make society a better place, or does it also hurt people? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
continued next week