Back in 1982, the Violent Femmes urged a generation not to get so distressed about something being put on our permanent records. To the band’s young followers, it was a comforting reminder that for all the vice principal’s rage and all of the demerits in our file, most of our elementary school antics, tween outbursts, and adolescent trouble-making probably wouldn’t condemn us to an adulthood of suffering and punishment.
But, then, that was before the rise of Big Data—before the era when “permanent” went from a somewhat figurative to a truly literal description of our personal information. Yes, today because they are electronic, our records are truly permanent. They live in perpetuity and in a forever searchable state. And with data storage costs continuing to drop, the marginal price of indefinitely keeping them is no longer prohibitive. That brings up a big moral question: Is it OK to subject even young children to this brave new world by creating permanent records of their behavior that can electronically follow them for their entire lives?
Becoming a guinea pig is the unspoken consequence of living in this, the second Industrial Revolution. Whereas the human guinea pigs in the first Industrial Revolution were indiscriminately subjected to new chemical compounds and air pollutants from recently built factories, we are immersed in new light wavelengths, electromagnetic clouds, radiation, and pathogens.
Those previous guinea pigs were calmed by cheery slogans like “Better Living Through Chemistry” while we are pacified by the existence of alphabet-soup agencies like the FCC, FDA and USDA. But while regulators are certainly more reassuring than empty corporate slogans, it doesn’t change the fact that the long-term impacts of new technologies can only be determined over time. And that means whole populations become test subjects—whether they choose to participate or not.