Where the past ends and the future begins

27 03 2009

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”
– George Orwell, 1984, Book 1, Chapter 3

I’m in the process of reading “1984” for the first time. Perhaps because of this, my conspiratorial radar has been on high alert, and the idea of anyone being able to in essence “re-write history” is completely horrifying to me.

The truth is the truth and everyone should have an equal opportunity of accessing and expressing it.

That being said, I am now going to step down from my soap box and look at the issue of privacy and public record from the underdog’s point of view.

The balancing act between public record and privacy is an issue that journalists have had to deal with before, and the presence of the Internet has once again brought it to the forefront.

Things have come a long way since the days when old newspaper clippings were buried in the newspaper office, said Craig Whitney, standards editor for The New York Times in the article “Rewriting History.” In this case, one of the greatest strengths — availability — can also be the greatest weakness. “We’ve always had a sense that the archive is historical,” Whitney said. “What’s changed is now anybody can consult it from home.”

For those who have nothing to hide, there is no problem. But still, public record has a funny way of including a lot of personal detail. According to The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, this can include anything from child custody, to bankruptcy, to medical conditions, as well as a raft of other issues. Even if you are wrongly arrested and the charges are later dropped, your arrest is something that will go into public record and will be there to stay.

With the Web, a person’s biggest mistake is never more than a few key-strokes away. Even after you’ve done your time and paid your fines — or sorted things out with the pesky neighbor who still has your leaf blower — you still must answer for your mistakes. When does it stop? Well, the short answer is that it doesn’t.

Should the content be changed? No. Fact is fact and the past is just that — the past. Saying that it didn’t happen doesn’t change anything. Yes, some of it may be unpleasant to deal with, but I think that ultimately it is how you move on from the speed bumps in your life that truly matters. There are always two sides to every story. I’m not saying this to give people a free pass for their stupidity, but sometimes there is more to a story than meets the eye — and hopefully that is something that the rest of the public (and especially future employers) will remember. Don’t discount someone just because their Google search results have a few “smudges” on them.

“If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say this or that even, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death.”
– George Orwell, 1984, Book 1, Chapter 3

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