Wednesday 25 August 2010

What does 'Reputation' mean in a world of instant knowledge?

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, has made the headlines this week for suggesting people will need to change their names to hide embarrassing material from their past. Indeed, for each cautious person who monitors carefully what they post about themselves online, there are several more who put little thought into it. And we cannot control what other people post about ourselves.

However I believe that in liberal-minded societies (such as the majority of Europe and parts of America), it is more likely that people’s standards will adjust. Having a spotless record in your past will not be a requirement for a responsible job, because enough people will recognise that a few wild years is actually the norm. This has already become the case, to an extent, with the public’s acceptance of politicians who have smoked cannabis. I expect that in future generations, people will be judged on their merits and not on their social faux-pas, recorded forever in the social media archives.

There may be a rather more serious problem in societies which are less accepting of the rebellious behaviours of the young. Super-conservative religious communities come to mind, such as the Christians of ‘Bible-Belt’ America, or Muslims living under Sharia law. Standards of acceptable behaviour are much more restrictive and the consequences of straying from the straight and narrow can be serious. And while these societies are just as exposed to new technologies as the rest of the world, their cultural norms may adapt more slowly.

In this sense, the ease of accessing information, that Eric Schmidt’s comments have highlighted, may have a polarising effect on culture. In liberal cultures, behaviour will become more open; in conservative cultures a paranoia about tainting one’s record could reinforce the restrictions. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out...

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