They will grow up. And they will log in.
The ages will vary and often be the result of a fair amount of debate. For the more liberal parents, it may be five or six, or eight at the latest. More cautious and conservative ones will aim for sixteen, knowing that it will really fall at thirteen or maybe twelve. There’s only so far you can push these things without causing catastrophic backlash. Holding a hard-line for sixteen will work for a handful, but will force the issue at eight or nine for far more. They will head to the social media outlets and they will enter their e-mail address and devise a password and they will see the world.
What they will look for, first, will not be external. Sure, there will be a couple of friends here and there. But the closest friends will mirror those they have in real life, Mom and Dad, Mom and Mom, Dad and Dad, Mom alone, Dad alone, Grandma, what have you. And they will be looking, primarily, not for others, but for themselves. And lo, what they will find.
It is one thing to have a shoebox of baby pictures in the closet, trotted out in embarrassing fashion when close out-of-state family friends come to visit or even the new boy- or girlfriend shows up at the door for the dance. Or even a home video or seven that depict moments that can’t help but be halcyon for the shy squeaky voice they convey across the years, the distorted mirror of one’s past self coming through the lens and onto the screen. But none of this can compare to the daily grinding chronicle of life, replete with commentary and varying levels of approval, that will greet these children of the future when they log in.
There is the birth and there is the next day and there is the stark nakedness of the tub or the first night across the the threshold, the brazen publicity of it all, no matter who this was shared with at the time. This is not Aunt Marge coming over and saying how she saw you when or held you how. This is Aunt Marge and 27 other friends actively seeing you – you – in the bathtub, in damn-near-realtime, liking the experience and asking for more! This is you having lived a life that you know you remember less than others but being painfully aware of just how many strangers were intimately involved in parts of your upbringing that you will never recall beyond this cribbed rebuilt chronicle of scrolling pictures.
But it doesn’t stop there, oh no. For it is not just pictures. It is the daily progress of exactly what your family was thinking at the time, during the hardest days of your earliest time on the planet. Maybe your mother doubted the decision to have you when colic claimed the ninth straight night of sleep from her addled brain. Maybe your father jestingly offered to trade you for magic beans or two months of Netflix, garnering twelve comments of sympathy and two counter-offers from his online acquaintances. Maybe grandpa posted a video comparing your movements to the family iguana’s, speculating that the latter was displaying a greater intelligence.
Sure, some of this is harmless, explicable. Or it will be moreso to you at twenty, or thirty, or when you have your own kids, the way that reaching a certain age makes you understand the people who were that age more. Temporal existence is such a fickle trick. But now, at five or six or eight or nine or even fourteen or sixteen, you will be bewildered. Did they not love me, that they could so callously discuss my existence this way? Was I that bad? Is this warm blanket of unconditional love I’ve come to expect an interpersonal ruse belied by the daily steam-blowing of a semi-public forum?
There will, in most instances, be an insatiable quality to the experience. After being locked out of this world by familial agreement or merely lack of awareness, suddenly the Complete History of You, adorned by countless opinions on same, will be available for endless perusal. Some will be waylaid, becoming obsessive, reliving a childhood remembered and not to the point of becoming an export in their previously forgotten selves. Some may be overwhelmed and give up, but continually be drawn back to this tempting world of an identity that predates self-awareness with an expansive thoroughness their present selves could not possibly hope to match. Others may become dissociative, unable to reconcile the barrage of imagery and commentary of their past being with a person who grew, unaware of this endless documentation and display.
There will be exceptions, of course. Those who anticipate this kind of shocking revelation for their offspring and try to head it off at the pass, attempting to ban the social media proliferation of images and commentary about their child, or limit it to a small, private group. And while these aspirations may be admirable and easily enforced before school matriculation, they will become wholly unwieldy and challenging once the child begins interacting outside the home. What of group photos at birthday parties, or the inevitable phone-snaps at a playdate? How exhausting it might become to trail after every digital camera and cellphone, diligently asking its user not to post it online lest images of their child become publicly available. There will be inevitable leaks, it being impossible to even see every phone at work in a public or semi-public sphere. There will be pictures, recordings that leak out. And when that child discovers that nothing of them exists when their peers are discovering same, they will hunt all the more diligently for those few leaked clues to their earliest aspects of existence.
As the child ages, the notion of an inextricable and continual identity, an ongoing narrative that predates and surrounds them, will only grow. Sure, there can be some sleight of hand with privacy settings and a few other options, but most of the content will be owned or controlled by such a disparate range of people so as to become wild, untameable. Some will try and fail to corral their online identity, from birth, when they move to a new school or matriculate to university. The past will no longer be a shadow in mere memory, but in painfully full-color and clickable expression. You can untag yourself, you can block your mother, but this does not prevent others from seeing you more clearly, vividly, and rememberedly than you want to even see yourself. Surely we see evidence of this sort of navigation already, social media having been embedded sufficiently in culture such that naked or other compromising photos have been disseminated and ruined people, or the unending imagery of a failed relationship haunts their future impossibly. But for the children of the future, this goes all the way back to the beginning.
And indeed, not just the beginning. It will be possible also for the child to watch the development of the relationship that led to their creation, the speculation on the process leading to their birth, every pain and inconvenience of the pregnancy. Not in all cases, surely, for this will be more tied to the social media presence of their parents alone and even how much scrubbing of that history said parents wish to do vis a vis their child. Though it will no doubt occur to many how exhausting it would be to selectively set privacy settings for the prior ten to twenty years for only their child, and even then moreso how odd it will be that the high school classmate they barely spoke to at the time got to see the evolution of this phase of their life, but their own child is banned from same.
A great challenge of social media for my generation has been how much we wanted our parents to see. Soon, it will also be how much we want our children to see.
But it will probably be out of our control anyway. Each generation has grown into their native technology sufficiently to outstrip the knowledge, understanding, and speed of use of their priors by leaps and bounds. Privacy settings will be hacked, blocks will be cast aside, dummy accounts will be made to look like Uncle Bobby finally got on Facebook after all, and the histories, for the curious, will be unearthed. Never before have we lived so publicly and in such a real, minute-to-minute way. And it may be of some comfort to consider that those who come after us may display a real, pressing interest in what it was like to be alive now at this minute, now at this one, now at this one. But are we really considering what it will be like to have been born into a world where that reality has already transpired and is there for the rewatching?
Like all decisions of the twenty-first century, technology and advancement must reign. Any consideration of the philosophical or social impact is just for the luddites on the sidelines. They can contemplate and soothsay all they want, but this era belongs to headlong, heedless “progress”, come what may, damn the torpedoes. The lesson of asbestos is that there are no lessons of asbestos. We just better hope some future technology saves us from our current technology.
This is me on the sidelines, squinting, holding my breath, and fiddling with a mirror. I’m not trying to stop the whole race, but occasionally there might be just enough of a glint of light to catch someone’s eye.