Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Best of Times in a Digital Age

Last fall I watched "The Best of Times" starring Robin Williams and Kurt Russell. It had been years since I'd watched this football classic from the 80's. I remembered the tale of lovable Jack Dundee, haunted by the catch he failed to make- an event he is reminded of and relives often, watching the film projector in his office he dreams of recreating the moment. Jack’s burden of the “man who dropped the ball” is a mostly self-imposed title, but he is also remind by those around him of his transgression from years ago.

He feels his moment of failure has become one of the defining moments of his life, as well as the history of the town. Without giving away too much of the film’s plot, Jack formulates a plan to replay the game in an attempt to delete the embarrassing event from the past.

After watching the movie again and considering some of the themes, I’ve wondered if this comedy from the early 80’s has any parallels to the present day and the future when technology has enabled events in our lives to be very public (by choice or not). When our videos, pictures, writings and lives stay on the web, forever sometimes, without context or permission. This is great for sharing life’s positive experiences - maybe not so great in life’s inevitable failures or mistakes.

I wonder if we are prepared for how we will react as all of our inner Jacks will be forced to deal with the unflattering information that is sure to surface that might be available to friends, family, love interests, prospective employers, members of our future communities. Because I don’t think humans will stop making mistakes, and I don’t think technology will become less available or mobile, and I can’t imagine publishing content on the Internet will become harder, I wonder how we will all react when our “dropping the ball” moments are public and persistent?

I think a common approach in the past was to try to scare people, and I’ve sat through more than one “Internet Safety” session that seemed at its core to be telling people not to get online. But I’m not sure if this message really resonates with many young people who are increasing online and willing to share in digital spaces.

And it wouldn’t be hard to pull up numerous examples of when embarrassing moments have gone digital, public and viral and have lead to tragic outcomes. But it doesn’t seem right to cite those examples in this post that started with loveable Jack Dundee. I could cite articles like “Welcome to Facebook, Where ‘Deleted’ Photos Live On For 16 Months” by Carol Scott which outlines the persistence of photos deleted from Facebook, but I don’t want this post to be about Facebook or Youtube or any specific technology or website.

Instead this post is about us. And while I think it’s a great idea to continue to talk to our students about their digital identities and how to shape them in positive ways, it will be equally important to see a shift in the way we as a society evaluate content online and the context (or lack of context) for the content we have online. We might need to allow ourselves to “forget” - even if the web doesn’t. Otherwise generations of kids might be dealing with their inner Jack Dundee every time they apply for a job or consider running for public office.

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