Commentary on our digital past

Kashmir Hill:

People were thinking about this a lot a decade ago. During an August 2010 interview, it was on the mind of Eric Schmidt, then the chairman of Google, the creator of the best fossil-digging equipment out there. Mr. Schmidt predicted, “apparently seriously,” according to The Wall Street Journal, that young people would change their names upon reaching adulthood in order to escape their digital pasts. The prediction was widely mocked for its impossibility.

The same month, another prominent data scientist, Jeff Jonas, offered a more utopian prediction: “I hope for a highly tolerant society in the future,” he wrote on a legal blog called Concurring Opinions. “A place where it is widely known I am four or five standard deviations off center, and despite such deviance, my personal and professional relationships carry on, unaffected.”

I remember this prediction because I cited it a decade ago when a 28-year-old woman had her Congressional campaign upended by a “scandal,” one that seems quaint by today’s standards but was a glimpse into our future. The woman who provided it was named, coincidentally, Krystal Ball.

Ms. Ball was running as a Democrat for a House seat in Virginia at the time; a conservative blog got its hands on decade-old photos from a post-college Christmas party, where Ms. Ball was dressed as a “naughty Santa” and her husband at the time was Rudolph with a red dildo for a nose. This sounds ridiculous, but the “raunchy party photos” fueled news stories across the world. I thought that what she was experiencing was notable for its limited shelf life: As more and more people got smartphones and flocked to apps like Instagram and Twitter that encouraged them to thoroughly document their lives and thoughts, this sort of shaming of people’s past selves would surely stop, because the throwing of stones would become hypocritical and dangerous.