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For our own good, we'll have to become less judgmental
On the hazards of holding everything a teenager said over the subsequent adult's head
The atmosphere of the Internet Age means that it's almost impossible to go through a week (or even a day) without leaving behind some kind of digital footprint. Text messages, Facebook comments, Tweets, Instagram captions, emails, Reddit comments, blog posts, and seemingly countless other vectors make it possible to put a comment on the record, even unintentionally. Even those who aren't trying to leave behind a digital record can easily and inadvertently do so by making an announcement in a church bulletin, responding to a public official in a format subject to FOIA, or speaking up at a PTA meeting where minutes are taken. What happens in the analog world still ends up being digitized at a high rate.
■ It wouldn't matter quite so much if it weren't for the compounding factors of persistence and searchability. That offhand blog post from Y2K could easily have been archived by the Wayback Machine or cached by Google, and if you don't know how to ask, it may never be removed. Searching through the past may have been daunting before, but decades-old newspapers are available from any smartphone or laptop, and can be searched en masse in an instant. No longer is the past lost to old file drawers full of microfiche.
■ So not only is it easier to unintentionally (or unthinkingly) create new content in this age than at any time in the past, that content can be replicated and stored forever and searched with increasing ease. Artificial intelligence will soon swallow the world's massive archives of audio and video recordings, translate them into text, and make them infinitely searchable, as well.
■ As a result, we need to become, by default, more forgiving of the things that people say and write. One ill-considered or malformed comment on Twitter could easily be seen by more people (and, even if deleted, live indefinitely as a screenshot) than a letter to the editor in the New York Times a mere generation ago. It's so easy to stumble into 15 minutes of fame that there is a stock response to the experience of going viral: "Check out my SoundCloud", itself a reference to even further grasping at celebrity. But the strange alchemy of this chronic drive to "create content" and the strange way that content sticks around practically forever is leading to a whole cottage industry in the weaponization of words. The internecine warfare of the College Democrats of America, fueled by text messages and tweets from its combatants' childhood days, is merely a taste of the emerging status quo.
■ Put simply: If you expect anyone to grow up now or in the future without having left anything regrettable on the record in their past, you're bound to be disappointed. Either they will have been carefully groomed by their parents from birth (think modern-day versions of Joseph Kennedy's clan), or they will have been so milquetoast and unremarkable as youths that no one will have paid them any attention (and thus would have been unlikely to find their way into interesting roles). If we intend not to become a nation led by weirdos, we're going to have to make a cultural habit of turning a blind eye to more of the indiscretions of youth. It's unlikely that the rising generations will actually do more stupid things than their predecessors -- they'll just be documented digitally.
■ None of this means we should give a free pass to anything a person says under the cover of youth, but it does mean we ought to recognize that the entire point of isolating juveniles from some of the consequences of the adult world is to help them learn to navigate choices and ideas. Not only are youthful brains not fully developed, but they simply haven't had the time to cultivate wisdom. An idea may seem appealing merely because it's the first one to which the young person has gotten exposure -- whether it's from Karl Marx or Ayn Rand. It takes time to seek out, digest, and draw conclusions from competing points of view. If we didn't intrinsically believe that, then we'd repeal the portions of the Constitution that set increasing age thresholds for serving in the House, Senate, and Presidency. If we want well-developed leadership in the future (and even right now), then easing our expectations of the words of others would be a decent start.