Honesty is the best policy, the saying goes. But in this harsh, connected realm of 1s and 0s, where virtually every click and scroll is recorded in stark black and white, where each step you take outside your front door can be tracked, the expectation of pure, unrelenting honesty could cause more harm than good. Because of this, we as a culture need to loosen up our people-wide policy that lying is never acceptable.
On Monday, Digital Trends contributor Bruce Kasanoff correctly pointed out that “pervasive new technologies will make lying or even bending the truth impossible, ushering in an age of ‘extreme truth.’” This rigid reality has already begun to build itself. Websites and advertising networks collect what we do online. Our cell phones serve as personal tracking devices. And when offline data brokers like Acxiom build profiles about each of us for the purpose of making a buck, well, “extreme truth” is a good way to put it.
But I fundamentally disagree with Kasanoff’s next point: that we must “embrace” this impending new world, and get ahead of it by always being completely “honest” in every little thing that we do. Such unadulterated honesty is not only impossible, it’s dangerous for both individuals and society as a whole.
What is “truth?”
The first problem with total honesty is simply a practical matter: “Truth” is a slippery beast. As Internet forums have taught us, what might appear true in one context seems completely ridiculous when other factors come to light. And while much of our lives will surely be recorded — are being recorded — the databases will likely never contain every facet of existence, all the imperceptible bits of reality that make up a true human experience.
Go ahead, give “honesty” a try
Second, as Kasanoff writes, “Human beings are used to living with perceptions of facts, not facts themselves.” This, he explains, will change when all facts about our lives are recorded — when someone (an employer, for example) can look back at each moment and know precisely what happened: where you were, who you talked to, how many of those TPS reports you actually processed on Sunday night. In order to combat the negative effects of this hideous new reality, we must, “Do things right. Do the right thing. Proactively,” writes Kasanoff.
Problem is, the human brain is woefully ill-suited to pure honesty. Study after study has shown that human memory is imprecise. But computers remember exactly. And because of this, we have no chance to be “honest” about our past — at least not if “honesty” means always reflecting the cold, hard facts — no matter how proactive we try to do the right thing. Failure is guaranteed.
The “real” problem
The empirical limitations of truth, honesty, and human memory serve as easy ammunition to fire against a fact-only future. But they are only the first layer to the problem with honesty as a default. Dig deeper, and your shovel will clang into other, tougher issues.
Take anonymity, for example. Using your real name for online activities, as Facebook presently requires, would appear to be a natural starting point for this implausible “Do right” society Kasanoff envisions. As 4Chan creator Christopher “moot” Poole explains, however, mandating that people always link who they are in the “real world” with what they say and do online has the chilling effect of pushing the truth — gritty, uncomfortable, real truth — further down, beneath the waves of polished information we sheepishly choose to expose.
Lying for truth
Plow deeper still, another troublesome feature of humanity comes to surface: If lying no longer becomes possible for most people, then we as a people will be at the mercy of those who can still distort the truth.
“When we get better at deception, we get better at detecting deception,” explained Ian Leslie, author of Born Liars: Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit, to the National Post in an interview last year. (He was paraphrasing Machiavelli.) “And it gets us better at understanding other human beings which requires a huge amount of mental fire power.”
In the end, Kasanoff’s point is not that the coming dystopian, surveillance future will be a good thing, but that it is inevitable, and we should prepare for the worst. Fair enough. But this attitude — that it is OK for our lives to be known to anyone who has an interest in knowing — also adds legitimacy to such a frightening future. And it suggests that you are not “doing the right thing” or telling the truth simply because you wish to have some privacy.
So prepare to have your pants ripped off, if you must. Get ready for the camera’s prying eyes, and the Web’s bottomless databases of facts about your life. But please, for those of us who like to remain clothed, fight back against all those who wish to rape our privacy and grind us into submission. Protect your truths and keep your honesty sacred. Don’t expose your hand. Do the right thing.
Image via olly/Shutterstock