Martha Lane Fox recently announced how she would like young people to have the ability to erase their online past when they reach 18 years of age. My initial response to this was that it seemed a good idea, especially as I hear more and more from young people about their struggles to manage their digital footprint, and how they turn to anonymous sites (the perhaps not so) ephemeral apps like SnapChat, and even the TOR browser. With respect to the latter, a perfectly sensible adolescent told me that they used the browser, because they didn't like 'being watched'.
Yet, despite the rising fears of digital footprints, I also have doubts about erasing the past. These fears are not driven by the Orwellian angst that 'He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past', but from uncertainties regarding how this will affect our identities.
Our sense of identity is rooted in and informed by memories, both conscious and unconscious. Indeed, good and bad memories inform our values and beliefs, and motivate us to act in certain ways. After all, it is not always the good moments that make us better people, but the trying not to repeat the bad episodes that may do.
In the age of internet everywhere, and mobile devices capable of fast and easy media creation, we are outsourcing much of our memory to social media or the cloud. As online becomes an integral part of our memory, what happens when the digital past is erased? Would blocks of early, developmentally important moments of life get erased too? We may be more in the territory of Philip K Dick in this respect, but interfering with memories may have unexpected consequences; think of Bladerunner or Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind.
To really grasp the impact of erasing the digital past, we have to acknowledge the extent to which we are already using more mobile connected devices as an extension of our mental apparatus. We have to recognise how much we already are cyborgs, psychologically. We build virtual and online profiles as much as we store memories in the mind. What happens online, in our interactions, or the comments of others in the virtual world, adds to that profile. But if we delete all or some of that content, do we become rootless and invented, rather than a person who has learnt from experiences, no matter how good or bad. And if we cannot bear to keep a trace of what we have done, when we feel it is bad, do we lose that painful feeling of guilt and capacity to recognise the impact on those important to us? After all it is a world of 'pics or it didn't happen'.
Martha Lane Fox though is right to point out that it is a harsh world that never allows you to forget, and to put behind you what was a reckless act of youth. All of us can remember such moments, but painful as they are to recall, they may have been a spur to something better.