net.wars: Naming conventions

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 20 August 2010

Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, is not a stupid person, although sometimes he plays one for media consumption. At least, that's how it seemed this week, when the Wall Street Journal reported that he had predicted, apparently in all seriousness, that the accumulation of data online may result in the general right for young people to change their names on reaching adulthood in order to escape the embarrassments of their earlier lives.

Wendy M Grossman

As Danah Boyd commented in response, it is to laugh.

For one thing, every trend in national and international law is going toward greater, permanent trackability. I know the UK is dumping the ID card and many US states are stalling on Real ID, but try opening a new bank account in the US or Europe, especially if you're a newly arrived foreigner. It's true that it's not so long ago – 20 years, perhaps – that people, especially in California, did change their names at the drop of an acid tablet. I'm fairly sure, for example, that the woman I once knew as Dancingtree Moonwater was not named that by her parents. But those days are gone with the anti-money laundering regulations, the anti-terrorist laws, and airport security.

For one thing, when is he imagining the adulthood moment to take place? When they're 17 and  applying to college and need to cite their past records of good works, community involvement, and academic excellence? When they're 21 and graduating from college and applying for jobs and need to cite their past records of academic excellence, good works, and community involvement? I don't know about you, but I suspect that an admissions officer/prospective employer would be deeply suspicious of a kid coming of age today who had, apparently, no online history at all. Even if that child is a Mormon.

For another, changing your name doesn't change your identity (even if the change is because you got married). Investigators who track down people who've dropped out of their lives and fled to distant parts to start new ones often do so by, among other things, following their hobbies. You can leave your spouse, abandon your children, change jobs, and move to a distant location – but it isn't so easy to shake a passion for fly-fishing or 1957 Chevys.  The right to reinvent yourself, as Action on Rights for Children's Terri Dowty pointed out during the campaign against the child-tracking database ContactPoint, is an important one. But that means letting minor infractions and youthful indiscretions fade into the mists of time, not to be pulled out and laughed until, say, 30 years hence, rather than being recorded in a database that thinks it "knows" you.

I think Schmidt knows all this perfectly well. And I think if such an infrastructure – turn 16, create a new identity – were ever to be implemented the first and most significant beneficiary would be…Google. I would expect most people's search engine use to provide as individual a fingerprint as, well, fingerprints. (This is probably less true for journalists, who research something different every week and therefore display the database equivalent of multiple personality disorder.)

Clearly if the solution to young people posting silly stuff online where posterity can bite them on the ass is a change of name the only way to do it is to assign kids online-only personas at birth that can be retired when they reach an age of reason. But in such a scenario, some kids would wind up wanting to adopt their online personas as their real ones because their online reputation has become too important in their lives. In the knowledge economy, as plenty of others have pointed out, reputation is everything.

This is, of course, not a new problem. As usual. When, in 1995, DejaNews (bought by Google some years back to form the basis of the Google Groups archive) was created, it turned what had been ephemeral Usenet postings into a permanent archive. If you think people post stupid stuff on Facebook now, when they know their friends and families are watching, you should have seen the dumb stuff they posted on Usenet when they thought they were in the online equivalent of Benidorm, where no one knew them and there were no consequences. Many of those Usenet posters were students. But I also recall the newly appointed CEO of a public company who went around the WELL deleting all his old messages. Didn't mean there weren't copies…or memories.

There is a genuine issue here, though, and one that a very smart friend with a 12-year-old daughter worries about regularly: how do you, as a parent, guide your child safely through the complexities of the online world and ensure that your child has the best possible options for her future while still allowing her to function socially with her peers? Keeping her offline is not an answer. Neither are facile statements from self-interested CEOs who, insulated by great wealth and technological leadership, prefer to pretend to themselves that these issues have already been decided in their favor.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).