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What Would Google's CEO Do: Change Name And Start New Life

Callie Schweitzer |
August 23, 2010 | 10:36 a.m. PDT


Google CEO Eric Schmidt (Creative Commons)
Google CEO Eric Schmidt (Creative Commons)
Do you have a Facebook profile? Any photographs ever been taken of you? Ever done anything someone might not approve of? Were you at some point in your life a teenager?

Uh oh.

If you answered yes to any of those questions, it may be time to change your name.

Or at least Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt thinks you should.

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Schmidt muses on all things Google, evoking images of a search engine tycoon with Orwellian powers. 

"I don't believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time," he says. He predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends' social media sites.

Schmidt’s recommendation that this generation of misbehavers and social networking fiends change their names upon entering adulthood to escape their embarrassing pasts documented on sites like Facebook and MySpace goes right to the heart of the argument that privacy is dead.

Our pasts are inescapable. Our mistakes are unforgettable. But our identities, the very essence of who we are as people, are somehow erasable.

We’ve been reduced to unique ID numbers tied to data that has been collected on us since our first Google search.

These computer-like identities are so unimportant and fleeting, in fact, that we can just abandon them, create a whole new self and establish a new virtual paper trail tying our existence to brand new mistakes, missteps and embarrassing Facebook photos.

Something doesn’t add up.

If privacy is dead and our pasts are inescapable, how could we essentially wipe out our own existence only to recreate ourselves before applying for that first job out of college?

And what if the engineering of reality doesn’t stop there?

Schmidt said the company is plotting for the day when society demands more than a “search” function.

“[O]ne idea is that more and more searches are done on your behalf without you needing to type,” he said. “I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.”

Schmidt said Google knowing “roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are” allows for a new kind of individualism and tailor-made suggestions that may never have come to your mind left to its own primitive devices.

Mr. Schmidt leaves it to a listener to imagine the possibilities: If you need milk and there's a place nearby to get milk, Google will remind you to get milk. It will tell you a store ahead has a collection of horse-racing posters, that a 19th-century murder you've been reading about took place on the next block.

If companies like Google preempt our bad decisions, remind us to take our vitamins and scold us when we forget to floss, how do we avoid becoming a society that lives on autopilot?

Finding some semblance of happiness in life inevitably means stumbling along the way—making a wrong turn, following our hearts instead of our heads, acting like we’re invincible only to learn the hard way that we’re not. 

But part of the fun of life is the fear of the unknown, anticipating the annoying-but-not-so-annoying phrase, “The best things happen when you least expect them.”

We’ve lived—and thrived—for centuries without electronic road maps like Google telling us what we should be doing next. What authority does Schmidt have to say that we can’t continue to live that way?

As humans, we come with baggage: We have pasts, we make poor decisions and we pose for questionable photos well beyond our teenage years.

But that’s OK.

We’re meant to make mistakes, with or without Google’s help. It’s how we learn from them that matters.

Or, put another way, we aren’t quite yet robotic enough to hit the restart buttons on our lives. If we could, we’d end up extinguishing some of the magic of life-- humans coming to terms with their flaws.

To reach editor-in-chief Callie Schweitzer, click here.

Follow her on Twitter: @cschweitz



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