Tuesday, October 23, 2012

After the Ball

It is necessary for an annual ball of young conservatives to enlist the services of a professional photographer, as there wouldn’t be much point in attending without a record of your having been there. The ball is really an elaborate preamble to the photo book that will inevitably follow and that thanks to social media can now be produced almost in real time. As well as taking high-quality images, a professional will make sure that nobody misses out on their chance to be snapped mid-social climb.

For anyone but the young conservatives themselves, these documents are a cautionary tale, a ghoulish gallery worthy of Lombroso. These aren’t so much the well-adjusted as the people who will eventually adjust you: probably out of a job, possibly out of social security. Study these people. You are bound to see them again some time sitting across a desk near you.

Everything about the set-up – the empty gilded frame, the unctuous presence of the Prime Minister, the unbroken sea of white faces – is damning in itself, but there is always the odd fellow for whom this isn’t enough. There is always a bloke who thinks my being here, this yellow tie I’m wearing isn’t enough. I am at risk of not being noticed. Wait, I know what I’m going to do. I’ll sit here with my yellow tie and my idiot smile and do a Roman salute.

In the shithead’s defence, he might have fairly assumed that the photographer would set the picture aside and not include it in the public display, since regrettably not everyone outside of the conservative movement gets how hilarious Fascism can be in its proper context. But it was uploaded along with the others, and naturally within minutes everyone posted a link to it everywhere. What happened next is the actual subject of this post: the admins of the Facebook page for the Auckland chapter of the worldwide fraternity of young conservatives took down the photograph, and several people noticed so the word immediately got around – does anyone still have that link open on their browser? – which ensured that the maximum possible number of copies were saved locally on the nation’s computers. It’s highly likely that someone would have saved it anyway, but that attempt to remove it just as everyone was looking at it, that reflexive bit of damage-control, made absolutely sure of it.

(And by the way I am one of those people: I saved the photograph and shared it on Twitter after it was taken down. The image is still on my computer but I’ve chosen not to include it in this post for reasons that I hope will become clear.)

The internet says: you will be publicly embarrassed. It’s bound to happen at some point, and when it happens you’d better not dare to remove the cause of your embarrassment or we’ll make ten copies of it and share it with one hundred friends. It doesn’t matter whether you deserve it or not, or what the nature of the embarrassment was. What matters is that the internet doesn’t forget. This is ensured no longer by the impersonal algorithms of Google’s cache, but by a much more effective and responsive social mechanism. Web 2.0 has an even greater fear of forgetting than web 1.0. It must control and retain all information, but most especially the information that is of a personal nature. The users themselves will police this.

Now suppose you did a Roman salute at a public function when you were at varsity and later in life Dad’s connections fail to come through and you apply for a job at a firm that might not see the funny side of that little episode. (In this hypothetical scenario you are not an heir to the British throne.) If they Google you – and they will – the picture is going to come up, and since many people linked to it, chances are it will be one of the top results. There is no actual solution to this. There is no authority, no jurisdiction, no pockets so deep that will buy you the right to remove all or even some of the copies of that photograph from the internet. All you can do is hire a reputation management company with a name like Defendmyname, Reputation Champ or – my favourite – Propadoo. They will attempt to push that link to the third or fourth page of Google results by creating thousands of spurious links to more neutral or positive information about you. If you ruled the internet for a day, this might turn out to be prohibitively expensive or even impossible, but it’s your only remedy. Of course a prospective employer or other interested party that is savvy enough might just take a peek at the third or fourth page of results. Furthermore, nothing says that down the line Google and the other search engines won’t get better at weeding out the fake links, causing the photograph to percolate back up to the top page.

This is the inside of the Google data centre in Douglas County, Georgia. Facilities such as these used to be shrouded in secrecy but now the company allows you to take a virtual tour. The caption for this area explains that
the colorful pipes send and receive water for cooling our facility. Also pictured is a G-Bike, the vehicle of choice for team members to get around outside our data centers.
The stock image for the memory of computer networks used to be, incongruously, the microchip. We should update it to this: a colourful maze of cooling pipes; a little colourful bike for getting around. Technology with a human face, like the social web itself. The purpose of this place is to secure your information and the information about you. There are thirteen such facilities around the world, with enough redundancy to ensure that a catastrophic mishap at any one of the data centres wouldn’t entail actual loss of data across the Google network.

If I had to settle for pursuing a single question on this blog it would be this: how do you repress a digital memory? And if I look at those pipes and think back on the thing last week with the bloke at the ball who probably isn’t even a fascist, and my own role in preserving the integrity of the data, I think I know the answer: you don’t. You just can’t. You can only feed the network with yet more personal information, yet more memory, in an almost certainly futile attempt to overwhelm not the system itself (the internet doesn’t forget) but people’s capacity to extract meaning from it, including your own.

So I opted not to include the photograph of the young man with his arm raised and the idiot smile, for whom I have no sympathy. Just some of the others. Photographs of people who want to be seen and remembered like that.

It was an empty gesture.


Anonymous said...


Ben Wilson said...

>If I had to settle for pursuing a single question on this blog it would be this: how do you repress a digital memory?

But you already answered it. Drowning it out, smothering it in more data. You've even pointed out that this already happens, all by itself, that the endless pursuit of more data is the very thing that hides the relevance and meaning of all the data.

The other answer is "you can't". That's the answer of the modernist, the believer in the progressivism of technology. I'm not sure they're wrong. Or right.

The relationship between meaning and data has always been a very mysterious thing, to me. The years as a computer programmer taught me that the process of logical analysis is a highly destructive thing, when it comes to meaning. Mostly it's ruling out the vague, drawing straight lines around things that aren't straight, cutting off their corners, insisting on idiosyncratic meaning to suit what can be formalized rather than what is understood by human operators.

When people say "computers change the way we think about things", the caveat is usually conveniently forgotten: "otherwise the bloody things won't work".

Chris Trotter said...

The way to hide a forest is to keep multiplying the number of trees.

Unknown said...

"...how do you repress a digital memory?"
Easy, repress the memory of it. On the other had, how to repress a digital artifact?
Memory is a subject, artifact - an object.
The conundrum of all philosophers. That and reductio ad absurdum...
The answer lies somewhere in between - the paradox. But (wink Ben) any poet would say that ;-)

Ben Wilson said...

>The answer lies somewhere in between - the paradox. But (wink Ben) any poet would say that ;-)

I usually add "Or somewhere else entirely, or nowhere" for strict logical truth :-)

Unknown said...

Ben, I like your strict logical truth but...http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reductio_ad_absurdum says no.
By being everywhere we find ourselves nowhere ;-)
Gah philosophers!

Giovanni Tiso said...

"The way to hide a forest is to keep multiplying the number of trees."

Wait. Isn't that how you make a bigger forest?

(Great piece on Shearer's newfound patriotism, by the way, Chris.)

Ben Wilson said...

>Wait. Isn't that how you make a bigger forest?

So long as the multiplicand is > 1. I can just see an economist exploiting such an omission.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"We multiplied the number of trees."
"But there was total deforestation!"
"We multiplied by zero."

Ben Wilson said...

I meant multiplier, not multiplicand. Although when it comes to trees, if you've got < 1 then practically that means you've got zero. So ironically I was technically correct without being correct in what I was meaning *at all*. Oh, the irony.

Rich said...

Never give your real name anywhere. (Even where it seems innocuous, like Facebook)

That will at least slow the googlers down.

Rich said...

Also, I assumed John Key had been shopped into those photos. Was he really there?

Giovanni Tiso said...

He was. Apperently he gave an inspiring speech about how twenty years from now nobody in the audience would remember how they felt about the defining issues of our age.

Ben Wilson said...

Yes, Key shows that you don't have to repress memories if you never form them. It's surprisingly profound.

rob said...

Great post, thanks! The 11-year-olds in the family are ever-so-keen to get onto facebook. But jeez- I can't imagine trailing around the sad tail of one's teens and twenties all my life.
And data and interpretation: gawd, this is the sad story of our managerial masters, the Vogons who are running things. Count count count. National Standards must be hidden in here somewhere.
It's depressing, and surprisingly hard to articulate just how wrong-headed this approach is.

Ben Wilson said...

It's depressing, and surprisingly hard to articulate just how wrong-headed this approach is.

Word. I think at least part of the problem is that belief in scientific reasoning is higher than ever, and yet scientific reasoning somehow conflated into nothing but data analysis might end up being its own antithesis. How many people are ever going to get that?

The Man's too big, the Man's too strong.

Keri Hulme said...

The Man is mortal.
The Man __will__ be gone-

Megan Clayton said...

Bets all in,
Cards all down,
Under your guiding hand.

The scalp-tingling press
of the adult's "hello"
Under your guiding hand.

Need a quick word
Can you pop in?
Under your guiding hand.

Just a proposal
Going forward
Under your guiding hand.

Mouths to feed,
Angry birds
Under your guiding hand.

O pater noster
Under your guiding hand.

Kids these days
and their irony
Under your guiding hand.

Don't let the door
hit you on the way out
Under your guiding hand.