One summer morning in my early teens, I was made an example of in school assembly for having done something very stupid. It felt awful. In fact, it felt pretty bad for about a fortnight, but that feeling eventually went away. These days I shudder at the memory only once or twice in a blue moon; no-one reminds me of it because no-one remembers it, and evidence of the sorry affair has evaporated.
Today, things are different. Our misjudgements and stupid transgressions can be amplified and broadcast to millions of people for sustained periods of time, and that’s really weird. We’re having trouble getting our heads around it. Little wonder, then, that an initiative called iRights has responded to this mindboggling state of affairs by calling on the government to take action. “It must be right,” reads its statement, “for under-18s to have an easy and clearly signposted way to retract, correct and dispute online data that refers to them.”
Good intentions, however, cannot change the reality: data is persistent. The EU has wrung its hands for years over our “right to be forgotten”, our right to have material either generated by or concerning us to be deleted. These discussions generate controversy because they closely intertwine with issues surrounding freedom of speech, but the bigger problem is that those rights are hard to enforce in an era when digital media is fun and easy to generate, quick to spread and near impossible to suppress.
We worry about the consequences of teenagers pouring out their hearts to strangers on the internet, but similar worries apply to us all. You only need to look at Twitter to see that under-18s don’t have a monopoly on strange behaviour; adults are just as poor at analysing the consequences of their actions in an online environment shaped by the random actions of millions of people.
The most common online response to iRight’s statement has been a kind of contemptuous shrug, a sneer at the unnecessarily mollycoddling of people who’ve only brought shame and embarrassment on themselves. But 21st-century technology has encouraged us, in the name of fun, to undertake widespread surveillance of each other and we can all recall instances where that has played out in unpleasant ways. The stipulation that if someone is wrong once they should be wrong for ever ignores the fact that all of us are wrong once.
The very people calling for the foolish to go hang are forgetting that they, too, could be made to look awful if they were subjected to close scrutiny. They’ve just been lucky, but from that privileged position they’re effectively ordering the cessation of errant behaviour, the imposition of a joyless compliance enforced by the threat of discovery. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got no interest in living like that.
There’s nothing wrong with iRight’s goals, but ultimately they’re not the answer. As an online community, we simply can’tmaintain this artificial level of outrage and shock over minor transgressions of behaviour. We’ll ultimately come to understand that it means very little; human behaviour hasn’t changed, but the prism through which we view each other has become wildly distorted. The teenagers who are currently at the sharp end of social media criticism will, I suspect, grow up with a far more nuanced and practical view of any lingering online evidence of our own stupidity. Why all the fuss, when it’s just an expression of our own youthful fallibility?
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