If my housemate ever runs for political office, he’s going to owe me some money.
When he stumbled in the door and tripped and fell at about 3 a.m. Friday, some of my other housemates pulled out a small digital video camera. They taped him rolling around on the floor, showing off a hole he had managed to tear in his pants. They taped him saying things like “You wanna suck my nipples?” They taped him tossing a glass of water at the camera. They taped him, quite literally, drunk under the table. The result?
A hilarious 7-minute clip that’s now sitting in my e-mail inbox, waiting to be forwarded. I’m not planning on distributing it yet, but imagine the possibilities. Who knows where my friend will be in 30 years?
Twenty years ago, this would have been something out of a science fiction film. Still cameras were clunky and took no more than 36 pictures on one expensive roll of film. Handheld video cameras were a novelty. And the Internet was in its infancy, still the province of geeks and college professors.
Now cameras take hundreds of photos, fit into pockets and purses and can have their contents sent around the world in seconds. We wake up on Sunday morning and log on to Facebook.com to find pictures already posted of what happened on Saturday night. And many of us detail the minutiae of our lives on blogs.
None of this is news, of course. We’ve all seen and heard endless commentary about the YouTube revolution. Time Magazine recently made you (me?) the Person of the Year. But all this new media put together has one effect that is only now becoming clear: Our generation will have the most well-documented youth in history. It used to be that you could escape your past. Now it follows you everywhere, just a Google search away.
There’s a future president walking around on a college campus somewhere in America. And this person is probably having some fun, if the White House’s two most recent inhabitants are any guide.
Here’s what I mean.
Picture this imaginary scene:
Sept. 1968. New Haven, Conn. Yale University. A young George W. Bush is at a party at his fraternity. One drink leads to another, and he’s doing keg stands or taking long swigs on a bottle of whiskey. Soon he’s dancing on a table with two scantily-clad girls.
Thirty-two years later, Bush runs for president, courting the Christian conservative vote. His past is, for the most part, buried. Sure, he talks about it, but he controls the way that it’s revealed, because there isn’t much documentation.
Remember, Bush almost lost the 2000 election when news of his 1976 citation for drunk driving broke. Karl Rove, the White House’s senior political adviser, famously said that the revelation cost Bush four million votes from evangelical Christians. What if, instead of a few cryptic documents, CNN had shown a batch of photos of Bush at Yale, where, according to a 1998 Newsweek profile, he “seems to have majored in drinking?” Would evangelical voters have been so easy to recapture if the image of Bush doing keg stands was burnt into their minds?
Bush isn’t the only example. It’s one thing for presidential hopeful Barack Obama to say he tried cocaine and learned from it. Winning the electorate’s forgiveness would be a lot harder for him if there were photos of the experience floating around in the ether, waiting for someone to find them. And just imagine what Sen. Ted Kennedy’s career would look like if all of his friends had carried digital cameras.
One University professor, though, says our digital past might not be an entirely unshakeable albatross.
School of Information Prof. Margaret Hedstrom is an archivist. She studies the way people store things. She has a “retrocomputing” lab on North Campus cluttered with old computers – think the Apple II from first grade – where she tries to extract data from media that’s become obsolete. It’s all pre-Internet, of course, but the lab underscores the rapid speed at which technology is moving. Stuff that was cutting edge 10 years ago is locked away in a lab now. She’s got boxes of floppy disks that no one can read. Soon, the flash card from your digital camera might be in a box like that.
But the pictures will probably be out there floating around, especially if you posted them online.
“You can’t really count on anything,” Hedstrom said. “You can’t necessarily count on it still being there 10 years from now.” But, she said, you also can’t count on being able to hide anything once it’s online – no matter how hard you try.
So, yes, someone could dig up your sinful past and show it to voters when you’re 55, but that might be tough unless that person realizes your potential now and saves the pictures for the next quarter century.
All this will make for much more interesting – and possibly more vicious – political campaigns when our generation starts running for office. Instead of having to destroy a few print photos or keeping a college buddy quiet, a candidate with a sketchy past will have to wait and hope that the evidence of his or her ‘youthful indiscretions’ that was posted on Facebook or Flickr in 2007 remains out in the ether, out of the reach of opposition researchers.
Or maybe this will all be for the better. When two people who have had their lives online since high school run for president, the trivialities of their pasts might become irrelevant. If both candidates know that a video of that rough night junior year or pictures of the time they passed out and had penises drawn all over them could end up on the Drudge Report, might the mutually assured destruction be enough to introduce a little bit of restraint into the system? Will voters become more forgiving? Or will it be only the squeaky-clean candidates who can survive in an age when the past isn’t something that can be buried, but is instead just waiting for someone to stumble upon it.