A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal published an interview with Google‘s CEO Eric Schmidt. It delved into a number of things like the Verizon deal and Schmidt’s excitement for Minority Report-style “targeted advertisement,” but the folks at the Telegraph noticed a truly interesting quote nestled unto the discussion. Schmidt apparently believes that, as time goes on and we reach a point where every single person has embarrassing information and pictures from their adolescence posted on social media sites online, it will become commonplace for people to automatically change their name once they reach adulthood.
From the Wall Street Journal:
“Google takes a similarly generous view of its own motives on the politically vexed issue of privacy. Mr. Schmidt says regulation is unnecessary because Google faces such strong incentives to treat its users right, since they will walk away the minute Google does anything with their personal information they find ‘creepy.’
Really? Some might be skeptical that a user with, say, a thousand photos on Picasa would find it so easy to walk away. Or a guy with 10 years of emails on Gmail. Or a small business owner who has come to rely on Google Docs as an alternative to Microsoft Office. Isn’t stickiness—even slightly extortionate stickiness—what these Google services aim for?
Mr. Schmidt is surely right, though, that the questions go far beyond Google. ‘I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time,’ he says. He predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.
‘I mean we really have to think about these things as a society,’ he adds. ‘I’m not even talking about the really terrible stuff, terrorism and access to evil things,’ he says.”
While this sounds like a great idea for a sci-fi novel, I really just can’t see this happening. First off, there will always be a sense of legacy and heritage connected to our names. People aren’t just going to throw away that connection to their families and ancestors en masse. Secondly, as smart as Schmidt is, he seems to be completely forgetting one of the biggest draws of sites like Facebook; connecting with people from your past. There will always be a market for seeing what that cute girl from back in high school looks like, so disconnecting oneself from old online identities is going to be much harder that switching a name.
But Schmidt is obviously right that this is going to change society. Everyone and their grandmother knows that job hiring practices have changed since young people started posting all their dirt online within potential employer’s grasp. But what’s going to happen when those young people grow up and every living person has all of their closet’s skeletons uploaded in digital form? The world’s going to be different and not just because all of the private detectives are going to be out of business.
I remember when Facebook first added their photo uploading and tagging feature and people first started worrying what to do with all those photos online of them drinking out of a beer bong (I was in college at the time). I theorized to my friend that the world of politics were going to have to change. Nowadays, a few photos of a candidate lighting a joint in their youth will really hurt a candidate’s career. But, in a future where everyone had pictures like that or of them in a skimpy outfit at a party, I had hoped that people would stop pretending to be shocked by silly things like sex scandals and start focusing on candidate’s actual policies.
God, if that doesn’t sound like the ravings of an idealistic college student, I don’t know what does.
I mentioned sci-fi novels earlier and it seems like my old prediction and Schmidt’s new one could both make good books. Mine would predict a utopian future and his would obviously foresee a dystopia. We can only imagine then that the actual future will probably end up somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately, given how near dystopian futures in books and films (like the aforementioned Minority Report) tend to be to the truth, it’s more likely that the future of social media will hew closer to his vision than mine.
In that case, I call dibs on the first name “Rex.” That name’s bad ass.