I want to be remembered. I think a lot of us do.
At least, that’s what I used to think. Now I am not so sure. I have a bad habit of looking at the universe through an existential lens where value is measured by impact. Impact, meaning the measurable change created by specific action. Since everything physical ultimately decays, the longest lasting impacts are those that linger in our collective memory. Great works, great triumphs, great discoveries, and great inventions – great impacts.
We remember the names behind great impacts for a long time – Einstein, Shakespeare, Lincoln, Tesla, the like – but even names fade into myth, leaving only the impact. Ramses II, one of the greatest conquerors in history, and the inventor of countless military tactics still used today, is now better known by the name Ozymandias, given to him by an English poet three thousand years after his death. Beowulf is taught in English classes around the world, and no original author is recorded. Ragnar, the most vicious, most successful Viking in history, is remembered more as a concept than a person (and may not have been one person.)
As our collective perspective on reality changes, so does our perspective on the old historical characters that impacted our present. George Washington, long celebrated as the father of the world’s oldest surviving democracy, is now referenced more and more as an idol of a shameful past, rather than a harbinger of freedom and progress. He owned slaves. Most were inherited from his wife’s father, and while the eastern states were still British colonies, it was illegal to free them. He freed them upon his wife’s death, after the United States was established, but in the lens of our time, owning another person even for a second, let alone many years, is unforgivable.
On the flip side, William Shakespeare, it is thought by some scholars, was Catholic. Others also think he was gay. (And others think he was more than one person – so a gay person and a Catholic person may very well have been part of the “Shakespeare group”.) Today we say “so what?”, but back then, and for many hundreds of years after his time, both were considered shameful, if not illegal. Remember, when JFK was elected president, his Catholicism was a contentious subject. That was only 1960. Gay marriage, of course, is a very recent institution in the United States, and broader LGBT rights are still an ongoing battle and debate around the world. Are people who shamed Shakespeare’s religious and romantic preferences bad people? Are people who celebrated George Washington worse? My intention is not to make any judgments either way, but to note on the point of being remembered that everyone is a slave to their time and place, and everyone who looks back at them a slave to theirs.
I am far from the first to put these ideas into words. The takeaway I want to illustrate, though, is that none of these characters are remembered as people. We don’t remember them as human beings with thoughts, desires, needs, wants, regrets, and an ever-changing, but somehow persistent, self identity. We can’t. We didn’t know them. After everyone who knew a person is gone, we can only remember the impact, not the human being. There is a danger to that kind of memory. We tend either to evangelize or demonize the figures of our past. Rarely do we land anywhere in between. Rarely do we recognize the flaws in our heroes, or the good in our enemies. Impacts do not capture character, so our memories become static while the world keeps moving. There is no consideration for who someone in the past might have been today. My romantic desire to be remembered is fundamentally flawed. We don’t get to choose how we are remembered.
Now we live in a world where everything is recorded. Everyone is remembered like a caricature of a long gone historical figure, only while they are still alive. This whole episode of amateur philosophy and self-reflection was brought on by log management, of all things. It’s essentially just a form of data collection, and my job is to sell it. Before the 1990’s, collecting and storing information was a challenge. You had to have some idea ahead of time about what information you needed and how you were going to use it before going through the trouble of physically collecting and writing it down. The tech boom made it possible to collect more information every day than we had recorded in all of our previous history. We live our lives in the digital world, and we record everything. More than 99% of it, no one will ever come looking for, but it’s still there, waiting. Our entire lives laid out like a biography we had no say in writing. Privacy concerns have become the hottest topic in tech, but why are we so concerned about it? Don’t we want to be remembered?
I’m steering around the seductive idea that tech is the problem and privacy concerns boil down to companies acting slimy with our data. Companies do act slimy with our data, but that reflects on them and not the data collection itself. Our log management platform, like most digital data collection methods, is just a tool. It was built for the purpose of making it possible for a small number of people to monitor large development infrastructures, secure networks, and cloud applications (among other things). That’s a valuable service that has nothing to do with personal activity. It can technically be used to reverse-engineer individual activity within any given system, but only by someone with the explicit intention of doing so and at great effort. Ultimately, there are far superior tools for ‘spying’ than ours, so I am not concerned with an affront to privacy on our part, but the mere possibility still intrigues me. Every mouse click is an impact etched in stone. Every angry message. Every embarrassing photo. Every sarcastic tweet gone wrong. We no longer have the right to make mistakes.
I don’t think the problem is tech. I think the problem is that the digital footprint, like the memory of a historical figure, is detached from the human being that made it. People are dynamic and their impacts are singular, static events. In the worst case scenarios, people in their thirties find themselves suffering for posts they made when they were fifteen. I don’t know about you, but I am not the same person now that I was at fifteen. In fact, I bet he and I wouldn’t even get along that well. He exists, somewhere. If you went looking, you could put him back together. Every short-sighted political post, comically unaware text meant to impress a girl, and enough photos to reconstruct a 3D model. Fifteen year old Paul is alive and well in the vinyl etches of Google’s internet backups, Facebook’s servers, and AT&T’s phone records. Each of us has that digital clone, representing who we were, but not who we are. A lot of people are pretty upset about that.
This is my profile picture from 2008. My first ever, apparently. I don’t even remember taking it. Was I embarrassed to show my face? Was I naively thinking I could keep my internet activity anonymous? Did I just think that the visual effect was cool? There is no doubt that the thirteen year old in that photograph is me, but I can only speculate as to what was in his head at that moment. But here it is, frozen in time forever.
The idea of “the right to be forgotten” has taken off in frontline politics. The first time I heard that phrase, I was astonished. Who would ever want such a thing? I thought it was just about advertisers and general disdain for big tech, but I get it now. Growth is a process riddled with errors. If we can’t make mistakes, we can’t grow. If everything we ever do is recorded forever, we can’t make mistakes. In some way, our entire society has stopped maturing. We sit in whatever corner we found ourselves in, too afraid to move, posting a re-skinned version of whatever got the best response last time.
Solutions, though, are elusive. We could place a mandatory erasure date on personal internet activity, but some things we want to keep forever, and honing in on exactly the right amount of time to retain angsty statuses and socially incriminating Instagram posts is impossible. Some data is necessary for technological advancement and has nothing to do with personal privacy. Most legislators are moving towards the most pragmatic solution – giving people the legal protection they need to take control of their personal data. That’s an important step, but it doesn’t solve the fact that no one is going back to vett their teenage selves for impacts they no longer agree with. In many cases, like mine, they don’t identify with that person enough to put in the effort. It doesn’t feel connected to us any more.
Maybe, in the end, this is all a non-issue. The internet is still young, after all. We haven’t really figured it out yet, culturally. On the one hand, people are posting more and more, and on the other, they want more autonomy over what happens to that data. Governments are pushing for more personal privacy in the hands of the user, but also pushing for back doors and direct feeds into government agencies. There is a tug and pull at play that will take decades to sort out. I guess all we can do is wait, watch, and try not to worry too much about what we’re remembered for. At least, in that regard, my greatest wish will be fulfilled.
*Views presented by Paul Stefanski are not necessarily those of observIQ