Humility is a great human asset. Given our ability to foul up so magnificently from time to time, it’s probably just as well. Humility is what helps us live through that embarrassing moment before everyone quietly agrees to either forget it and move on, or to acknowledge it happened but get past it. But is the ubiquity and openness of modern media making this easier – or harder? This isn’t an article about intentional surveillance – although with the UK as the most ‘watched’ society on Earth, there is plenty of scope to explore that – but the impact on our lives of being ‘in public’ more often than we used to be: some of our private moments certainly aren’t guaranteed as much privacy as they used to be.

As a species, we are documenting ourselves – and each other – with a voracity that might have amazed even Secret Police forces less than 20 years ago. (Although, they kept their files very well guarded rather than actively promoting them.) Apart from CCTV, the rise of (variously) lens and microphone equipped mobile phones, digital cameras, blogs, forums and the web generally has not only ‘democratised authorship’ – we all have the tools now, if not the skills or finesse – but also given us the ability to make what we capture, click or scribble public on a whole planet scale. In 2009, your dirty laundry can be on display in Shanghai while you’re still wriggling into a clean pair in Bolton. And then re-displayed every few seconds in a different location. And you won’t even get performer’s royalties. Which should give you pause for thought.

There’s an undeniable appeal of minor boobs like the double entendre, malapropism or inadvertent spoonerism: like Hilda Baker, we speak without fear of contraception when we proclaim the world would be a poorer place without beeping slags, humpled creeps and their ilk. Without their innocent wit, even a smart fella would be left metaphorically pulling his cat flap over his ears to keep out the roaring pain while he whistled a bad salad.

And then where would we be? Well, if we’re a public figure with a less than happy record of speaking ‘off piste’, our reputation might start to suffer if language seems to be beyond our grasp from time to time. Even George W Bush didn’t mis-underestimate the importance of basic communication skills, as he commented in 2001:

You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.” 

Surprisingly, no-one has yet managed to record how he feels about that exact quote turning up on over 15,000 Internet sites, according to Google. Possibly not so happy, although to be honest, the moment probably had less impact on his image and reputation than the John Major/”three bastards” affair or the Gerald Ratner crap/prawn sandwiches blunder. As the enormous digital archive that is the web continues to build inexorably, these are also ‘pasts’ that will not slip away as conveniently as before.

A huge blunder might – as in the past – propel you to the front pages. (For some reason, I’m thinking about floating duck houses. Odd that.) Until recently, good PR – or good luck – would have kept you off the newspaper billboards a day or two later. Nowadays, new media can dog you for far longer – like the proverbial mischievous puppy, the Internet is for more than just Christmas. The past might once have been another country, but 21st century media can go beyond boundaries. This seems to have escaped a surprising number of people. While the Mark Oaten saga was sordid and unpleasant, an in-depth interview with the Sunday Times – still available in its online archive – was not the way to ‘bury bad news’. And the behaviour he believes early hair loss lead him to may well make him a hate figure for anyone with male pattern baldness for years to come.

As if our own folly weren’t a big enough threat, the ‘new’ media means that anyone can comment, anyone can organise, and anyone can agitate. Some of the targets are predictable: even without some major law suits behind him and now matter how much software he gives away free, Bill Gates will always have his knockers. In an echo from recent history, the samizdat leafets of the political underground and the fanzines of the punk era – all photocopying and hand-stapling – have come online. False claims or dodgy practise are now seen as fair game for anyone with a Facebook profile, time on their hands and a willingness to ‘go public’: if it was released in 2009, one of music’s most iconic recording would probably have to be retitled Never Mind The Boswelox, Here’s The Text Pistols. Just ask Marks & Spencer, who were on the receiving end when 14,246 members of Busts 4 Justice decided to get unfair pricing off their chests.

Reputation management is getting tougher. Your Facebook or MySpace profile might contain things you don’t want your line manager or HR to know – or links to friends whose contain might raise questions. (Although monitoring it poses legal issues too.) Equally, your organisation may be subject to an online mauling or a pressure-group campaign. Your book (or CD or DVD, or kitchen appliance) might get slated on Amazon, or on a thousand other sites. It’s all out there and it all stays out there for a long time: we simply don’t have a carpet big enough to sweep it under. The Internet’s been compared to many things, but has no-one previously seen it as a garden fence with 6 billion people leaning over it for a good old gossip?

Even when disaster strikes and action has to be taken, the taking action gets documented too: read about Kryptonite Locks run in with the wider world. Although ironically for a lock company, they do perhaps teach us that openness and honesty are good policies after all. Even when myths are as popular as facts. When there are eyes and ears everywhere, try to have as little to hide as possible.

And, given that we cannot change the past, at least come to terms with it. Who would expected Bill Gates (“640K ought to be enough for anybody”, he said in 1981) would be less prophetic than Burt Bacharach …

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