In a fascinating interview in the Wall Street Journal, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt has admitted that young people will have to change their identities in the future to protect themselves from all the embarrassing photos and information that will be available about them from their ‘misspent youths.’
‘Every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood.’
I think this is more interesting than he might have meant it to be, and touches on issues of identity, conversion and ‘rebirth’ into adulthood. Many societies still have initiation rituals which mark a move away from childhood and into full adult membership of a community. They become a new person. The old has gone, the new has come.
With this move, however, the community needs to present a sort of amnesia – the child that you were is ‘forgotten’. In the digital age, this is becoming more and more impossible:
“I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time.”
To ‘available, knowable and recorded’ I’d add ‘remembered.’ And this could be a problem. Why? Because it will never allow people to move on from the idiocy of their youth, and let’s face it, most of us were idiots at least some of the time.
But perhaps there’s a deeper problem here. The reason why people may be forced into taking new identities is because society, while never being able to allow us to forget, has it self forgotten that we were all young once. In other words, we have become unforgiving. An interviewer who looks up a prospective candidate’s Facebook profile and decides that their drunken photos and stupid utterances exclude them from consideration has forgotten that they probably did the very same things. It’s just that they were unrecorded.
The move into adulthood then may involve a ritual of rebirth, of digital deletion or reassessment, even a conscious attempt to turn over a new leaf and become ‘someone else’, but this must be paralleled with a decision by all of us that we will also be forgiving.
This appears to me to be the dual-role of baptism. The person who disappears under the water leaves behind their old self, and rises a new being. But the community that watches them disappear, and then reappear, has a responsibility to forgive – and this means ‘pretending to forget too.’ When Jesus says ‘you will no longer be called Simon’ he becomes Simon/Peter – a dual identity, with his Simon-self ‘forgotten.’
We might all need these digital baptisms from time to time. Periods when we need to delete, and then pretend that things are forgotten. The infamous university photo of Tony Blair (back row, third from right) is a good case in point. It’s embarrassing, but it’s surely crass to use it to judge him now?
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