Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Eternal Memory and Social Immobility

Mark Thoma at the Economist Voice grew up in a small town with all of its vices and virtues --- most notably the massive shadow of the future it had on all interactions:

Things are different in a small town because you are rarely anonymous. Interactions on the roads, in grocery stores - anywhere at all really - are never a one-shot game, you always have to be aware that there will be a next time, aware that your reputation informs and is informed by every interaction. When you apply for a job, your whole history comes with you, there's no need for anyone to Google anything but their own brain to know your life story....

In this environment there is a higher cost and thus lower probability of a rapid second chance due to the strong social ties and high levels of social memory. A kid who screws up at sixteen is labeled, and treated as a screw up at twenty six if he stays in that same small town.

Dr. Thoma then links to an interesting (not mockingly said) piece by Tom Friedman on the nature of the electronic/digital memory:

The implications of all this are the subject of a new book by Dov Seidman, founder and C.E.O. of LRN... His book is simply called “How.” Because Seidman’s simple thesis is that in this transparent world “how” you live your life and “how” you conduct your business matters more than ever, because so many people can now see into what you do and tell so many other people about it...

For young people, ... this means understanding that your reputation in life is going to get set in stone so much earlier. More and more of what you say or do or write will end up as a digital fingerprint that never gets erased. ... For this generation, much of what they say, do or write will be preserved online forever. Before employers even read their résumés, they’ll Google them.

“The persistence of memory in electronic form makes second chances harder to come by,” writes Seidman. “...[L]ife has no chapters or closets; you can leave nothing behind, and you have nowhere to hide your skeletons. Your past is your present.” [emphasis mine]

A good deal of intergenerational poverty literature suggests that there are significant implicit and tacit social skills and coping mechanisms that can not be passed down to children because the parents/adults raising them have not learned those skills themselves. Aggressive and early interventions as well as changes in the social environment have proven to be at least partially successful by introducing these skills, but as in any adaptive learning process, mistakes will be made, and not everyone will learn everything perfectly on the first try.

If the cost of trying to learn, and making initial mistakes are high due to the expansion of the eternal social memory, will this deter people from taking risks, examining unpopular opinions, exploring new subjects, getting caught up in a short term fad or otherwise being anything other than bland? Most hiring managers are risk averse. They want sure-thing candidates who have the proper credentials, the right college degree even if that degree is at best tangentially related to the actual job, and minimal 'personality' risks. Googling applicants is already here, and it has knocked out potential candidates numerous times at a near infinite number of companies.

The eternal social memory expands from a small town perspective to a wider national/global perspective without the ability of youth to move to a big city to recreate themselves after living in the small town, does social and income mobility stagnate even more than it currently has?

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