The jokes that younger generations pass around as memes on the web do have a point. A person digging through drawers of library index cards is captioned “pre-Internet Googling.” Or an office worker flipping through a Rolodex (right next to the corded, rotary phone) is said to be using “pre-social media Facebook.” Even if it’s a more practical solution for a grocery list, the old paper pad and pen is still considered a “hipster tablet.”
The kernel of truth to these memes is that information technology didn’t give us much that we didn’t already have. It just became faster and portable. A Kindle becomes a pass to browse all the libraries in the world, and a Netflix subscription a movie ticket to every theater. The media-savvy philosopher Marshall McLuhan was already pointing out that “the medium is the message” when TV was still new. We can only guess what he would have had to say about Twitter.
It’s the same way with our background records. Collecting all of the documents necessary for a modern background check would have taken at least weeks if it was attempted in the middle of last century. Dishonest people used to take advantage of that.
In the famous case of Frank Abagnale Jr., memorably portrayed in the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can , his trick was right there in the title: he was able to commit massive fraud and skip town before investigators even began to sort out what he’d done. The movie shows him passing himself off as a doctor, pilot, lawyer, and more (all true from his life story), and cashing false checks to fund his misadventures, all because he could stay two steps ahead of his past record.
Information catches up with you now
Frank Abagnale Jr. would not have been able to get away with his fraudulent schemes in the modern-day. Information travels too fast now. Background checks are fast enough that he would have been caught in all those lies overnight. While it seems we do hear about more crime these days, the fact is that there was just as much crime going on before, but most of it went unknown and unchecked.
Prior to the widespread adoption of computer networks, a pre-employment screening would have involved an application and a few hopeful phone calls to verify employment. But now that background checks, credit checks, and other forms of verification are so convenient, they’ve become a standard. This also means that even those of us leading honest lives still feel a little scrutinized. The electronic eye watches all of us, never blinking.
For some part of the public’s opinion, information technology might be getting a little too good. Lawmakers and social watchdogs are beginning to talk about “the right to be forgotten,” which is already put into practice in the European Union, arguing that minor infractions and blemishes on one’s record don’t need to follow a person forever. Outside of official policy, the Internet’s own social media is also a merciless judge of minor offenses. We’re all familiar with the story of a celebrity who muttered one ill-thought comment and drew fire from the public for days.
Marshall McLuhan nailed it
In modern society, we find ourselves preoccupied with stories and events that would hardly have concerned people a generation before. One bit of news will go viral at a time, spawning Instagram hashtags and Saturday Night Live skits in a matter of hours. This creates an environment of spectacle, where every news story becomes a three-day circus before being swept away under the next event. Social scientists have to ask “What does this do to human behavior?”
Likewise, with our own personal information trails, we’re all inhibited from risky behavior a little bit more because we’re aware of the eternal permanent record. Arguably it makes the world a safer place overall since more criminal acts get found out immediately, but public records may undergo a little revision as with the EU, if the memory of the vigilant electronic witness proves too intrusive.