The permanent record

I read a couple of things this week—Lord of the Flies, one of those famous dystopian-ish books that everyone talks about but I’d never gotten around to, and the first half of Permanent Record, Edward Snowden’s new autobiography. It would be trite of me to point out superficial parallels so I won’t, but there was some wry amusement to be had reading one after the other.

What struck me about Snowden’s book is how well he explained what it was like to grow up on the Internet as an elder millennial. Reminiscences of early multi-user computing are prone to a simplistic nostalgia where dialup-era communities were magical and later the commercial web came along and ruined everything, which he happily avoids.

He talks about the effects of anonymity, the unexpected kindnesses between strangers, and the diverse politics ranging from jingoism to anti-authority hackers. He acknowledges the technical barriers to entry and discusses embarrassing aspects too, in particular the cringeworthy messages that he once posted.

"Writing pseudonymously had meant writing freely, but often thoughtlessly. And since a major aspect of early Internet culture was competing with others to say the most inflammatory thing, I'd never hesitate to advocate, say, bombing a country that taxed video games, or corralling people who didn't like anime into reeducation camps. Nobody on those sites took any of it seriously, least of all myself."

After 9/11 he was applying for a top secret clearance so that he could work for intelligence agencies in the US. (It’s worth noting he enthusiastically supported the war at this point.) This was a long and invasive process in which bureaucrats interviewed many of his contacts and looked for any ways in which he could be compromised. He thought about his old posts and considered deleting them all, a process that he could have automated easily.

"...ultimately, I couldn't. Something kept preventing me. It just felt wrong. To blank my posts from the face of the earth wasn't illegal, and it wouldn't even have made me ineligible for a security clearance had anyone found out. But the prospect of doing so bothered me nonetheless. It would've only served to reinforce some of the most corrosive precepts of online life: that nobody is ever allowed to make a mistake, and anybody who does make a mistake must answer for it forever."

That was already a pretty radical principle (a.k.a. “a hot take”) to hold back then and it’s only become less popular since. If you don’t quote-tweet that wrong opinion with a zinger takedown you’re basically leaving Internet points on the table. It’s unthinkable.

Of course, this resonates with me for selfish reasons—I too said plenty of dumb things online in the past. Mercifully many were ephemeral discussions on MUDs or other services which have long since expired, a privilege not granted to those born after the web took over, archive.org began operation, and everyone got a phone with a screenshot function. I may be less of an idiot than ever before but I still sometimes get anxious about my digital trail. I periodically use a service to clean out old tweets, even when some of them had a lot of Internet points.

Those of us who post online have some choices. Should we take principled or controversial positions publicly, knowing that we may hold a completely different view in five years? Is there any point in posting thoughts online? Or are we simply condemning ourselves with every word we write? Should we tie our communications to real-world identities? What should we get angry about and what should we ignore?

I’m not sure where the balance is yet but it’s refreshing to think about it again. It’s been a long time since I heard somebody speak in defence of being a documented idiot online, despite it being an issue that affects a significant fraction of the online population.

Here’s a hypothetical to end on. Here we have one of the most significant whistleblowers of his generation who sparked legislative change and a massive uptake of encryption globally. I wonder if things would have gone differently if back in 2013, Glenn Greenwald published Snowden’s identity immediately and somebody linked him to posts about reeducation camps.