In the past, before social networks and big brother governments, running away from your past was easy. If you were in the US, you could move to Alaska. A character in Christopher Nolan’s film Insomnia, says: “There are two kinds of people in Alaska: those who were born here and those who come here to escape something.”
If you were a fugitive of a more international nature, you could join the French Foreign Legion. To this day, the legion allows people from all over the world to join the military outfit under a false name. Though it now uses background checks, the legion had a reputation for harbouring unsavoury types on the run.
But in the future, Google CEO Eric Schmidt warned us recently, it might be impossible to run away from one’s past. Not to Alaska. Not even with the foreign legion.
That’s because so many people have begun leaving indelible online footprints. Every time you upload a photo to Facebook, tweet a quip, or post a personal anecdote on a blog, you are leaving behind a little piece of your identity that is nearly impossible to erase. Thanks to services such as Google, and the plummeting costs of storage, information of the Internet today has an infinite shelf life.
Which is perhaps why Schmidt told The Wall Street Journal that one day young people might be offered the option, on attaining adulthood, of changing their names. So that they can distance their respectable adult selves from the digital detritus they have left behind online.
Schmidt’s fears are justified, if puzzling. Puzzling because Google’s services themselves are responsible, in no small measure, to the data left behind on the Web. (Remember that Google is rumoured to be working on a social network of its own.)
But what if future societies jettison existing views of privacy? What if young people get so used to sharing information that social interactions shape themselves through and around this abundance, instead of vice versa?
How will such a society, bereft of secrets, work?
It is hard to imagine. As hard, perhaps, as it might be for your grandfather to fathom how you can “friend” a complete stranger by clicking a button on a computer screen.
Is privacy in society dwindling for good? Tell us at views @livemint.com