Home > Adam Keiper, Society, Victor Mayer-Schonberger > “When folly is forever,” by Adam Keiper (Wall Street Journal op-ed)

“When folly is forever,” by Adam Keiper (Wall Street Journal op-ed)

Having scribbled my fair share of shameless screeds and, while in the throes of a heated email debate among my political-nerd friends, thoughtlessly thumbed countless indiscreet ruminations on my BlackBerry, I should probably worry about my doomed political future, as Victor Mayer-Schonberger intimates might be necessary in his book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. But I don’t (and not only because I’m not contemplating much of one anyway), and I don’t think most people really should — at least, not in the long run.

That I’m saying this is my own argument’s QED: Having said enough that could be twisted and distorted in a campaign, I’m that much less likely to assume that the unearthed (or unethered) emails of a candidate really offer me much of a window into his candidacy, since I know that not much of what I’ve written offers anyone else much of a window into my own (hypothetical campaign). My hunch is that after this initial phase of shock and awe over what some might have written 10 years ago as a sophomore in college wears off — as most novelties do when 10 years becomes 20 (becomes 30, becomes 40, and so on) — the only people left to vote or hire workers will be those who’ve similarly erred. Soon, just about everyone will have emailed an unformed or uninformed thought, or played devil’s advocate (“Let’s say I’m a gay ex-Mormon who wants to change his gender and marry my older brother …”) or employed sarcasm (“Yes, yes, I know: I’m a racist misogynist — guilty as charged!”), which we all very soon will realize can be easily twisted and de-contextualized by a manipulative opposing campaign or reporter.

My hunch — or maybe it’s my hope — is that it will all become white noise and dismissed in the same way that it’s often easier to read in a crowded cafeteria overflowing with the conversations of hundreds than it is in a near-empty one the silence of which is absorbed, as is your attention, by the conversation of two. Soon enough, we all (or most of us, anyway) will be victims of some past discretion, and as a result, all (or most) will stand on equally shaky footing. The only thing left to sturdy the past on which we all stand so awkwardly would be a cultural, tacit acceptance that, hey, kids will be kids and even young adults say and do things they eventually grow out of. Once anything and everything everyone writes and says is not only fair game but fairly accessible, all we’ll have, all we’ll be able to rely on at all, is the present as a guide. Ultimately, then, I hope our virtual memory will fade into relative unimportance. And hey, it may even behoove the goody-goodies among us to have said and done wild things as a child. After all, how can we trust someone who seems to have so miraculously navigated the ether as to remain virtually unblemished?

And besides, as Mr. Keiper, Delete‘s Wall Street Journal reviewer argues, “what’s so bad about a little self-censorship? It may prove safer for those of us who leave no moment unphotographed, no heartbreak or health scare unblogged, and no thought un-tweeted. And it may also help reawaken us to the quiet pleasures of private life.”

I’d go a step further and add that what’s missing in our schools is an emphasis on thoughtfulness. To the contrary, kids are taught to think less, that speaking before thinking is not only a right, but a virtue. A return to emphasis on rigorous thought — which would occur a step or two before self-censorship, giving the speaker perhaps less to censor, since his thoughts would be disciplined and well-formed in the first place — might be a healthy bi-product of the era of airing dirty laundry.

So, I think we’re worrying about a whole lotta nothin’ — again, in the long run, since in the short term we’ll of course gape at this and that electronic revelation from the Ghost of Whispers Past.

(One final thought: Where are the adults who spend more time admonishing kids not to engage in a drunken orgy in the first place than they spend worrying about whether its photographic evidence will end up on FaceBook? I mean, honestly. It seems to me the more mature response and warning as we enter a new age is along these lines: “If the myriad good reasons not to participate in teenage drunkenfests are not clear and convincing, then perhaps its unintended consequence of potential career setbacks is: don’t be a moron, and no one can snap pics of you acting like one.” Where’s this kind of leader in our kids’ lives?)

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