Rhodri Marsden: Corporate power lies in the mixed messages

We could do what Schmidt suggests and live carefree lives before clearing up the mess afterwards

Wednesday 18 August 2010 00:00
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A friend of mine recently lost her job, thanks to recession-related cuts. Her worries surrounding finding a new one have nothing to do with the number of opportunities available or her qualifications, but are more centred around the information about her that she knows is floating around, out of her reach, on the internet. She has committed no crime or done anyone any harm, but over the years has simply found herself responding honestly to that casual question that's asked of us (either explicitly or otherwise) by an ever-increasing number of websites: "What are you up to?"

The comments from Google CEO Eric Schmidt seem to indicate that the solution to the problem of "over-sharing" is that we should have the right, in the future, to detach ourselves from any highly public, highly erratic online personas we once had. He is, quite rightly, sceptical that society understands what happens "when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time" – but nor, to be frank, does Schmidt himself; last year, for example, he stated that if people didn't want their experiences to become public knowledge, maybe they shouldn't be doing them. Even last week, speaking at a technology conference, he decried online anonymity as potentially dangerous, hinting that governments will, one day, demand verified name services online. Neither of these statements seem to square with his current one, which is more like, "share everything now, worry about identity issues later". One can't blame Schmidt on a personal level for flip-flopping; the myriad ways we interact online have become sociologically mind-bending. But, at the same time, he is CEO of one of the companies who make huge sums out of the information we surrender to them in the name of fun, interaction or convenience.

As it stands, we have three options. We go down the route Schmidt suggests, live our lives in a public, carefree fashion, then try to clear up the mess afterwards. Instead, we could use technology more responsibly – perhaps even cut out social media altogether and accept the severance of all those social connections we've undoubtedly been enjoying for the last few years. Or we can simply hope that the sheer quantity of data about ourselves that we sling into cyberspace will become perfectly normal; that all our personal foibles, indiscretions and stupidities will be regarded by society as a normal part of being human. Which, of course they are. But be clear – the onus will always be on us to worry about this; internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook and Google will always claim to be a benign overseer of our online lives, despite them constantly urging us to comprehensively document them for posterity.

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