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The Unrecorded Moment

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Saturday, November 13, 2010

I can't quite remember certain things that happened in college, particularly during my junior year "abroad" at Dartmouth. I'm sure some of that is age (in this case, a rare blessing), but the larger part is that I don't want to remember. And I can't imagine wanting anyone else to, either, at least not with any greater accuracy than their equally limited memory should allow.

Certain moments are not meant to be remembered, much less recorded. It's bad enough to have lived them. Do we really want to be outlived by them?

Plainly, that is not a concern for the "real" housewives of wherever, who prove, in all their incarnations, that the desire to be a "star," to live with someone following you around with a camera as if everything matters, outweighs good judgment from the Jersey Shore to Beverly Hills. The difference is that you used to have to find or be found by a reality show that would fly you to Cincinnati or Hartford to make a fool of yourself. Now, all you need is a friend with a video camera, or a tripod and camera of your own, or your own phone at the other end of your own arm.

Everyone can be a star -- just without any of the good parts.

No money, no limo, no first-class anything. But for nothing, you get to lose your privacy and anonymity, as well as your right to make mistakes that go away. In a present where the moment does not seem to be truly lived unless someone's phone is capturing it, we build the library that will preserve those moments long after good judgment and old-fashioned selective memory would have let them go.

Students look surprised when I advise them to thoroughly investigate themselves online -- to see what the Bar or their next employer will find when they run the search on you. What is knowable? Don't forget archival stuff. Some of it you can't help or control. No one gets through life without a few disgruntled former beaus, bosses, employees or relatives. You can't worry about that. But the judgments you make now produce the record you live with later on. No one gets a clean slate.

I used to spend a fair amount of time sitting with people who were deciding whether to run for high office, or helping them in the first months after they did. I always had the conversation about "the worst thing about them that could appear on Page One of The New York Times," which in retrospect seems almost quaint.

Have you ever been caught by a phone in a compromising position? Ever sent an e-mail you shouldn't have? I'm not sure I'd want to work for the person who could give an honest "no" to all that. But I'm also not sure mere mortals will want to face the kind of scrutiny of all things personal that is going to get markedly worse as we preserve more of the raw material.

At the personal level, useful as it might be to parents, there are good reasons for why we all don't get implanted with GPS chips. Nor should we be standing in line to carry them around.

A world with no personal space is going to end up being one with plenty of bad stuff in the public space, forever recorded.

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