News in the Internet age of post-innocence

December 13, 2004

It was a little matter, but the implications were big. Some years ago a student at a small college was interviewed for an undergraduate reporting project on weapons. (Both student and school shall go unnamed here.) He was brash and foolish, and he bragged about his collection, which he liked to keep close at hand. He was quoted at length; he sounded like a jerk. The article was posted on a departmental Web site.

Now, years later, it can be unearthed instantly by anybody with Internet access. If you Google the kid’s name the first entry that pops up makes him sound like Travis Bickel from “Taxi Driver.” Hire him? A prospective employer would more likely call Security. So the alumnus appealed to the school to help.

Which it can’t, even if it wanted to. The feathers are out of the pillow, the toothpaste out of the tube. An incalculable number of copies of that item lurk on the Internet. There’s even a vast Invisible Web where dead Web sites live on. Expunging the record isn’t an option.

Such is the Internet’s underside: an incapacity to forget. In cyberspace information has two qualities it has never quite had before: It is imperishable — and it is universally accessible. The combination has a disturbing potential that the usual norms of news media, which create so much information, never anticipated.

For reasons of law and custom, the media traditionally insist on a fairly clean distinction between public and private. They accept restrictions on poaching in the private sphere. But they insist they’re entitled to report on anything that’s “public.”

Fortunately, that’s a right, not a reality. As a practical matter much of what’s technically public remains effectively private — from your age to the juicy details of your divorce, from how many cars you own to what your house is worth. Even police records: All but a tiny fraction of arrests go unpublicized to the wider world. Maybe that’s bad. But maybe that makes it easier for people to go forth and sin no more.

So we’re used to dwelling, most of us, in a zone of relative obscurity, and not just with personal data. Within limits we could mess up — streak across campus, tear down the goalposts, get into a barroom punch-up — and even if it made the local paper our sins would be soon forgotten. That “permanent record” we were warned about has largely been a phantom.

Not any longer. The comfort of relative obscurity is giving way to the glare of immediate accessibility.

Elements can be saved. Governments can enact Web-access rules to public databases. Colleges can decide that the young should be able to make fools of themselves with impunity, and withhold student chronicles from the Net.

But the news media exist to make things public. The real challenge is theirs, because the Internet fundamentally challenges some of the basics of what news is.

Take the assumption that news is about informing people right now. No longer. Now news is indistinguishable from archive. With every deadline, newsrooms are building a globally accessible store of information that’s here for keeps. It better be right. That means mistakes must be fixed zealously, no matter how long ago the original report ran, even if nobody complains. Those papers may be landfill, but the error is still hanging there in cyberspace, fresh as ever, wrong as can be.

Likewise, consider follow-through: How can you report an arrest without ever noting that the charges were dropped and the defendant acquitted? Routine neglect like that was tolerable only because we assumed the matter would soon be forgotten. But nothing’s forgotten that way now. On the Internet, that arrested person will remain under a cloud forever.

In the disturbing sci-fi movie, “Strange Days,” technology enables raw experience to be recorded. Not just pictures and sound, but sensation and emotion, can be played back. Our jilted hero keeps replaying — literally reliving — the thrill of a doomed affair. The result is that he never gets over his ex-. The memory never fades.

There is a mercy to forgetfulness, just as there is to averting our eyes. The Internet gives us a great deal, but it is destroying both options, and we have no ready way to restore those vanishing mercies.

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