This article was first published in 2011, before the Snowden revelations.
In the coming of age ceremonies of ancient Rome, young men were taken to a torchlit room at the back of the family house to see the death masks of their ancestors. Under their stony gaze, parents made clear the expectations there was to achieve greatness for the family, and wanted them to know the spirits of their ancestors — the Manes — were watching them. In the modern world similar beliefs still endure within Christianity; that the judgemental eyes of relatives are watching us from Heaven. Similar ideas flourish in beliefs such as spiritualism and the New Age movement. In fact, for much of Western history, the notion that we were being watched by spirits of some flavour has long been part of our day to day lives.
But in strange inversion of this long held belief, we are inadvertently building a world that allows not our ancestors to watch us, but our descendants. Children born in and around the year 2000 (Millennials, in marketing-speak) will live the better part of a century in a world of ubiquitous recording technology. We’ll leave behind a rich seam of hundreds of thousands of photos, videos and recordings harvested from decades of portable cameras, CCTVs and digitally archived phone calls (“this call may be recorded for training purposes”).
As recording technology evolves and continues to invade physical space, it will hoover up exponentially more data about the real world, and as a consequence, more and more data about us and our activities. As such, the details of our lives will be stored in higher and higher resolution as we move through time. Broadcast quality HD cameras are already available for as little as a few thousand Euro. HD 3D video recorders, for instance, will likely be commonplace within our lifetimes. Likewise, a growth area in CCTV technology is that of Megapixel Cameras, video analytics and audio recording. Technology is gorging on data, and coming up with more ways to eat it.
Mapped onto the audiovisual framework of our lives, we leave every idle thought and preference parsed through Twitter, Facebook and their successor services. Every blog, forgotten email and text message. Every downloaded file and image, every word or phrase you ever searched for. Intimate thoughts, recorded unwittingly through behaviour patterns. Archived GPS coordinates of everywhere you went — and when — from the instant you got your first smart phone. In Physics what you’d call your entire world-line through four dimensional space.
What we’ll leave behind is much more than a death mask. It is the fossil of an entire lifetime, petrified in the electronic strata of a planetary machine.
At present, these pieces of information are floating about somewhere in the vastness of the Internet in diffuse, disconnected databases. Although much of it is publicly available, much else currently resides safely behind the walls of privacy policies or has been harvested in secret by state security organisations (such as the phone calls reportedly recorded by the controversial Echelon base in Yorkshire). But as author and thinker Steward Brand reminds us; “Information wants to be free”. Julian Assange would agree.
In years to come, when issues of privacy regarding the deceased erodes, and technologies for exploring the oceans of data evolve, it seems highly likely these scattered pieces of information will coalesce. Advances in technologies such as the Semantic Web will make the merging of databases much easier. Biometrics technologies will also be used to scour audiovisual data for the unique identifiers of our voice, footsteps and even our typing rhythm. Physical biometrics will be used to pick your face from crowds from decades worth of archived footage and arrange it chronologically.
Such technology is being pioneered by intelligence agencies around the world today, who are struggling to cope with the glut of data they are collecting through surveillance devices. Like the Internet itself, this will slowly seep into the public sphere to be commoditised, perhaps into Family Intranet systems where our data-fossils can be scanned and analysed in detail.
As the 21st century unfolds, the work of genealogy will shift from treasure hunting for scraps of information — such as in wedding registers — to something more akin to data-mining. Whole new user interfaces will evolve to cope with the massive glut of ancestral data. They will be able to track trends in the density of specific phrases and words we used over our lifetimes. Our descendants will be able to see which of our friends and colleagues influenced us and why by analysing our behaviour patterns over time. Our entire existence will be browseable, searchable, and stored in holographic detail.
Some of you may even have videos of you being born sitting on a digitised videotape somewhere; imagine the surreal sight of your great grandchildren being able to view your messy, screaming debut into the world before fast-forwarding to footage of your funeral. To steal a line from H.G Wells, they will study us “as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water”. Unlike the Romans, we will not be idealised memories mapped onto a clay death mask. We will be there in vivid HD detail, our every triumph and flaw there to be studied and dissected. We are haunted not by the spirits of our ancestors, as the Romans believed, but watched by the omnipresent eyes of generations yet to come.
Such unspoken anxieties are behind recent moves by the EU to enact “right to be forgotten” laws in relation to digital media, and, one might argue, so are government attempts to have photographing police officers criminalised. Both are examples of a growing fear that things we do will be stored and archived indefinitely — perhaps held against us — as is the ongoing debate over consistent online identities vs online anonymity. While Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg argues that having several identities online shows a lack of integrity, 4chan founder Moot argues that anonymity is authenticity, because only when you avoid fear of social fallout can you say what you really think. Which is bad news when you consider Google CEO Erich Schmidt recent comments that there is no anonymity in the future of the web.
As the Great CCTV Camera of history bears down on us, it is worth pondering how our descendants might think about how we conducted ourselves in our day to day lives. Will they be proud of the forefathers and the parts we played at such a pivotal time of history? Will they like the men and women we became? Or will they be disgusted at how we evaded our responsibilities, lied, cheated and squandered our lives? Perhaps it will lead to a world where where we are no longer held up to unreasonably high standards. Or perhaps it will encourage us to raise the bar and become better people, knowing that someone, however distant in time, is watching us.