Thursday, November 24, 2016

Mortals Against Digital Dragons 

Headnote: the European Union is working on legislation, of 176 pages, for “freedom to be forgotten” where someone can legally instruct Google to remove data about them. It’s due to go into effect in 2018; it will apply to Canadian firms with an office there.

In two dimensions is a physical footprint,
in three dimensions is a digital footprint,
extending out of the past
like a long dragon
to breath fire on the present.
   Sean Crawford

Hello reader,
Got digital ethics?

Ethics, good manners, customary ways of doing things… It takes a while for people to get accustomed to new customs. When the World Wide Web brought in widespread hope and change, no one predicted things like, say, the appearance of trolls. When the trolls first appeared, no one knew instantly what to do about them. Cultures adapt, but it takes time: for individuals, for society overall, and for small virtual-societies of people linking on the Net.

Meanwhile, speaking of trolls, we seem to be developing anti-bodies such as the slogan, “Don’t feed the trolls” and essayists like Paul Graham are analyzing trolls and implying, in my own words, “The troll never sees a troll in the mirror.” Things aren’t hopeless.

On the Net, I have seen changes for electronic-mail etiquette; call it “netiquette.” Again a reason for hope, hope that changes for our digital life can still happen. Today I am hoping that if my young niece is shown on the social web joining the godless communist party then it won’t dam her forever in the eyes of proper church-going society. After all, every year a young radical comes to believe that Islam means peace, every year someone learns American History X.

I’ve been thinking of a man who, according to Wikipedia, was known in later life for being against racial segregation, yet who earlier in his life was in favor of segregation, of black Americans being forcibly kept away from other Americans. Should he have been allowed to change his mind? If he is a serving politician, then should he be allowed to implement measures that are anti-racist, if he used to be racist?

The man I’m thinking of once stood in front of a university door to deny entry by black students during his time as state governor. I’m sure glad Governor Wallace changed. His change was allowed, in part, because the Internet did not yet exist, because the Net did not say he had to stay consistent with his old beliefs, and because the Net did not say he had to be accountable to his distant past.

Can a man be both bad and good in one lifetime? Warden Clinton Duffy, walking in the concrete enclosed prison main yard, among twisted convicts, without any bodyguards, thought so—he was a walking miracle. The people who started Alcoholics Anonymous thought so—millions have since found AA as their way out. The slave trader in a wooden ship who wrote Amazing Grace thought so—and his song of praise is still being sung today, in our time of tiled space shuttles.

In our ancestor’s days of slow sailing ships they surely experienced change, at the level of society and groups, although I guess their society changed slowly compared to our rushing modern life. But change they did. And in their own lifetime they would have seen a few individuals who changed immensely. An old miser might learn a Christmas lesson in just one night. Some individuals might change by living among far away civilizations, or by going on lengthy sea voyages: There was a reason ship’s captains were allowed to conduct marriage ceremonies. If while traveling on the road to Damascus a person of Jewish heritage had a Christian revelation, well, too sad if his earlier words were kept freshly embalmed on YouTube.

Our mortal ancestors found their solution: The statute of limitations. If a man was lost at sea, or went into hiding in the misty wilds of Asia Minor, his wife could re-marry after seven years without losing her self-respect, keeping her membership in her church and community.

As for the ancient Greeks, they who seem like Yoda in certain areas, I don’t know exactly if they had seven-year statutes, but I suspect they did. I do know that after a war if they erected a battlefield victory sign then it was always made of wood, never chiseled in stone. It was intended to decay… The Muslim ideal of tribal feuds lasting decades and generations was not for the Greeks. (Would you believe Arabs still talk about the Crusades? Even far off Muslim-Americans, to them, are from one of the Crusader nations)

For today’s essay I would be suspicious if I thought I had a perfect, precise answer to the question of digital ethics—Of course I don’t offer any such answer: Surely social values take time to grow, starting from people feeling a little hope that their neighbors are reasonably open to change.

Here’s my humble little seed of an idea: Perhaps instead of saying that everything we post should always remain in cyberspace forever and ever, we might consider saying to each other there is an ethic of a seven-year statute… This would spare my niece.

As I see it: The Internet was put in place by people, and people can change their netiquette.

Aren’t library periodicals tossed out after seven years? If Mr. and Mrs. Clinton are applying for jobs with the United Nations, and some villain tries to post a controversial communist poem they once wrote together decades ago, or a poem-video of them reciting at a wild fraternity party, then shouldn’t I feel permission from my peers to figuratively throw out the post? Can’t I avert my eyes, hit a button and mutter something about statutes?

Our ancestors said, “Give a dog a bad name and you might as well hang him.”

Warden Duffy said, “Men are not leopards. Men change their spots every day.”

Sean Crawford
Somewhere on the Web,



  1. Thank the good Lord the internet wasn't around when I was younger. My habit of taking my thoughts and depositing them into the world without any vetting would have meant that all the changes I've made in my life would have been for naught. I shudder to think of how many crosses I might be nailed to if I had to constantly be reminded of my past sins. My mother taught me a good lesson when I was young. I was about twelve years old when she came across a letter I had written to a friend describing the hickey I got the night before. Of course, it never occurred to me that my mother might read my letter so I felt free to leave it out on my bed before I had put it in an envelope and mailed it. When she told me she read it I thought I would be in the most trouble because of the hickey reference. Not so. Her biggest lecture was about how I should never put something in writing that may some day come back to haunt me. Wow! What a lesson. I didn't write much for the next 50 years. Then I discovered fiction writing was a place I could write the truth without anyone suspecting me of bad behaviour. On Facebook I only post positive thinking messages. I avoid commenting on and sharing any negative, nasty, religious or political stuff. Mainly, because based on my past experience I might just CHANGE MY MIND.

  2. Whew, what a close call for you!

    All my favourite people have a past. When my high school mailed me for a reunion, only a few years after graduation, every single one of my favourite's were on the "can't be found" list. I was still using our homestead up the valley (two brothers were still there) as my mailing address, or else I wouldn't have been reached either.

    Might change my mind? Yes. Although lots of young men I knew got tattoos, before they were fashionable, you don't see me getting a tattoo. Especially one on my face or hands to proclaim, "I will never have a white collar job." (In my day they wouldn't tattoo you there)
    The man in American History X gets a Nazi tattoo before he gets rehabilitated.