You Can’t Erase the Internet

Something we talk about at school is being aware of our digital footprint. Young people today have an enormous digital footprint, which means the choices they make now may have consequences far beyond what they can reasonably be expected to imagine. (We know that much about frontal lobe development, after all.) We talk about this with students in the context of university and job applications. If the people reading your applications do their homework, we say, you need to be prepared for what they’ll find.

Fairly recently, I started looking around to see if I could remove items with my name attached from the Internet. (The book A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki has been floating around my mind.) Altering posts on my blog, for example, is easy because all I have to do is edit, unpublish, or delete to my heart’s content. There’s nothing I can do about content that others have previously copied, saved, or disseminated, but removing information from my blog is very easy. However, editing is much more challenging in parts of the Internet where I am not the sole owner of a document, or when other parties share document permissions.

This is interesting to consider when written evidence exists to suggest that my ideas have changed. As authors, journalists, and publishers have known for as long as publishing has been around, it’s nigh impossible to take back something in print. What is written is written and people have seen it. Changes may occur but the record itself remains. People who speak in public know this, too. In fact, we all know this. Inconsistency and evolution are easily visible to anyone who bothers to look.

In a situation when change is discovered and pointed out, there are largely two choices. We can condemn one another on the basis of what was once said and shut out difficult conversations and opportunities to learn, or we can consider that evolution of ideas is part of being human. Rather than hoping our old words will vanish into the ether of cyberspace or memory, we can make the choice to stand up and say, “I’ve changed. Here’s how.”

This is a big deal. Psychology tells us that it will likely be uncomfortable to recognise and admit to inconsistency. To protect our self-esteem and make it easier to cope with the every day, the human brain rationalises cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately this ultimately prevents us from actually looking at the very things that need examining. We don’t always like the past because it might not reflect who we are now, or perhaps it highlights aspects of ourselves that we wish weren’t there. When the brain senses this conflict in us, it helps us rationalise our behaviour so that we can save face and feel good. This is a protective measure, but not a particularly helpful one for those who want to live honestly, openly, and with integrity.

Just like we cannot erase the Internet, we also cannot erase the past. We cannot pretend to be faultless because we aren’t. We have all made mistakes or behaved in ways that we may not be proud of, or that may not reflect how we would behave today. If we really have grown and if we really want to be better people, we cannot deny what has been. If we really have changed, the past will not define us. Who we have become should be obvious from our current actions. If you see such a change in me, your role is to judge the present on the basis of itself rather than holding the past over my head like a sword. No one can heal if old wounds continue to reopen.

At the same time, however, actions speak louder than words. I may claim to have changed but it is my actions that matter.

It can be confronting to ask challenging questions and then act in accordance with what we have found. But actions ripple outward and if we can learn from the past, if we can see inconsistency and evolution in ourselves, we can lay the foundation for a life lived honestly and with integrity.

This is the kind of life that makes a difference.

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