30 November 2011

Operation Delete

I heard about something today on the radio I'd never heard of before: the right to oblivion (le droit à l'oubli).  In a nutshell, this is an idea being invoked to support arguments that one should be able to request (or have automatically triggered by law) the removal of data and images relating to oneself floating about in cyberspace. 

Let's say you got wild and crazy at the beach party last summer.  Pictures were taken, and you thought nothing of posting them to your Facebook page.  Now, however, you're in line for a sweet job, you don't want the prospective employer to find out about your, perhaps perfectly legal but nevertheless unseemly, behavior, and so you request google or Facebook or any other such entity to permanently delete and/or block these images.

I'm given to understand that there is movement in some European countries to have such measures kick in routinely after some years have passed.  At the age of 40, say, one can watch one's 20 year old and younger self just vanish, and when one turns 41, anything from one's 21st year will follow suit, and on and on.

The program I was listening to centered on the legal and constitutional issues surrounding privacy, unwarranted search, image and data ownership, etc.  What is fascinating to me, and what seemed to just pass by as unproblematic in the program, however, is the very idea that one should be able to be free of one's past at will.  As one commentator I heard put it, such a right speaks directly to the "American ideal of self-creation."  Self-creation, so it seems, requires self-erasure.

Now I'm not one to go in for a lot of karma talk, and I hold to the non-substantiality of the self as one of the marks of conditioned existence.  Still, I think it's simply a matter of a sane assessment of conditions to say that one just can't pretend one's past never happened, even if one is no longer the one that one once was. The person one is is – in a not insignificant sense – conditioned by what one was.

I'd propose a different solution, though I will admit, pushing the delete button would be a lot easier:

Let's just lighten up on each other some.  It's not the end of the world, nor does it necessarily speak poorly to one's professional qualifications, to have evidence that one's teen's and twenty's weren't the best-spent years of one's life.  Let's understand that we have all – every last one of us – made stupid decisions, or gotten entangled in bad relationships, or misspent money, or had too much to drink, or whatever.  Let's not hide our warts and nicks and bruises and cuts in order to pretend to some retrievable virginal purity.  Is it really too much to ask that people get to be exactly who they are, have been, and will yet become?

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