Technology TED Talks

When our private lives become public online … will it make us more or less tolerant?

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Photo: Ryan Lash

“I’m not arguing that this stuff shouldn’t exist,” says Juan Enriquez. “I’m saying that precisely because this stuff is so powerful, we should be careful and think about what we’re doing, instead of treating it like a lark, thinking if we post something at 2am that no one will care.”

The Boston-based entrepreneur and many-time TED speaker is mulling the impact of social media and new technology in an interview with the TED Blog yesterday. As he asks in this short talk from TED2013, what if the “digital tattoos” we create by using programs such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google are in fact as enduring as any embellishment on our physical selves? Shouldn’t we at least try to avoid being branded with the digital equivalent of an embarrassing tramp stamp?

Juan Enriquez: Your online life, permanent as a tattoo Juan Enriquez: Your online life, permanent as a tattoo  It’s a new metaphor for an old topic, one that’s busied writers and thinkers of every generation. As Enriquez himself points out, the ancient Greeks were terribly taken with ideas of immortality and how they might be remembered. Yet he believes that in modern life we’re not at all savvy about the long-term consequences of impulsive decisions. He points to Andrea Benitez, the young Mexican woman who recently ran afoul of social media when she proudly and publicly wrote about getting her father to shut down a restaurant she considered didn’t treat her with enough deference. “Now she’s ‘Lady Profeco,’ essentially Lady Macbeth,” says Enriquez of the girl, who’s been roundly trashed within social media, even the subject of an article in The New York Times.

Enriquez is not arguing that Ms. Benitez should have been free to exploit her father’s status. Neither is he saying that the solution is to swear off social media for good. Rather, he’s advocating a path of conscious tolerance. “We’re demanding that young people be responsible for stuff that lasts for a long time,” he says. “Folks should pay attention.”

But isn’t Enriquez just being old school, I ask? Sure, he and I might be horrified by the idea of every last thoughtless jape of our younger selves being captured and broadcast to a virtual audience of millions. But, well, it wasn’t. Why does he think those growing up in a new status quo won’t simply figure out the best way to manage the deluge? Might not society mores shift, so that what he sees as a permanent stain might in fact be as fleeting as a temporary tattoo? “I do wonder,” he allows. “If all our lives become transparent, if you actually get a full picture of the good and the bad of someone sitting next to you in church, how would our societal norms change?”

“I don’t know that there’s one answer,” he adds. “I’d like to think we’d be more tolerant, but often when things are exposed we clamp down and deem something unacceptable.”

In other words, it’s the grey areas we should watch for, and we should foster open conversation about the impact of our media on our actions and behavior. The solution isn’t to deny digital, though heaven knows there are plenty of such ideas in the works. (Enriquez mentions these glasses designed to impede facial identification software.) Instead, we must be thoughtful, smart, and conscious of the decisions we’re making, the tradeoffs we’re making, and the potential consequences of our actions. To apply (whisper it) common sense. That’s a concept that’s as old as the ancient Greeks … and one that’ll never go out of style.