Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Arks and Arc of Our New Narrative

It's true that see your searches, but we forget them after a while.
- Eric Schmidt, Google CEO on The Colbert Report
In 2006, AOL Research publicly released a file containing 20 million search queries for roughly 658,000 people on its research website. The data was intended for academic research, and although it contained no personally identifiable information (PII), it took very little time for enterprising reporters to discern the identity of at least one individual, user No. 4417749.

The public release of the search data set off a firestorm of controversy about user rights, data privacy and ethics. It also unlocked an ark of personal stories that were never intended to be retold. One such story was captured in a poignant film titled "I Love Alaska" directed by Lenert Engelberts and Sander Plug.

Looking for answers?
I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.
- Eric Schmidt, Google CEO for The Wall Street Journal
I Love Alaska is the story arc of user No. 711391 - a religious, middle aged woman from Houston, Texas who spends her time from March to May 2006 looking for answers to over 4,000 questions about the facets of her life: her beliefs and opinions, her snoring husband, her health, her sexuality, her online affair, her obsession with television and strange cosmos and the rest of her most intimately held affairs, bound together with the threads of a search engine.

The film itself is a simple yet brilliant composite of the stark Alaskan landscape and natural sound intermingled with a narrator reading No. 711391's search queries aloud. It is one of the most compelling artistic compostions of our new narrative I've seen.

Our Openbook
They trust me. Dumb fucks. - Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO on The New Yorker
I don't know if user No. 711391 ever realized that her life as she told us about it - funny, tragic and palpably human - was shared with the entire world by two Dutch filmmakers. I can't imagine how her life would have changed had her identity and private thoughts been shared in the local newspaper or discussed at a church picnic during one of those hot days in Houston.
Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay - Dharun Ravi (Rutgers University roommate of Tyler Clementi) on twitter

Jumping off the gw bridge sorry - Tyler Clementi on Facebook, just minutes before leaping from the George Washington Bridge
I don't know if Tyler Clementi saw the images of his most intimately held affairs broadcast online by his roommate at Rutgers University, or if he just heard about them after the fact. We do know Facebook held the last bits of this young soul, the Hudson River swallowed another victim, and our humanity has taken another jolting blow.

I don't know if the 500+ million facebook account owners know that a shockingly large number of their personal stories are universally accessible.
I don't believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time. - Eric Schmidt, Google CEO for The Wall Street Journal 
Are we are ready for these new arcs of narrative to play out - if so, how should they be directed?  and if not, what should we do about it?

Eric Schmidt has apparently thought about this and predicts for the Wall Street Journal that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends' social media sites.

Instant identity wash, with drip dry. Get a new name, start a new story.  Sadly, that won't help Tyler Clementi or even user No. 711391.

Surely you must be joking, Mr. Schmidt (if that is in fact your real name).

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