In the year 2006, my friend Erin and I were standing on an apartment balcony beneath a night sky too light-polluted by Denver’s electrical buzz to show any real muscle on the star front. Venus was up there, probably, joined by a scattered handful of other celestial entities flexing the requisite star power to break through all the local light smog. Mostly, the sky was just black.
We were outside in order to smoke some cigs (these were different times), and also to discuss Erin’s recent forays into law school, and specifically the dubious legality of Facebook “owning” and profiting off teenagers’ photographs.
There was a time when the idea of a tech company collecting cash off the digital snapshots of minors seemed too outlandishly dystopian to be believed. Yet against my mid-aughts shocked protestations, Erin assured me this was going on, and would likely continue, unless the law could be rapidly revised to prevent it. She sensed little appetite for such a legal battle, though she herself was interested in joining the fight.
An idealistic 23-year-old just embarking on a career teaching the very teens whose self-images Facebook wanted to free-license and exploit in perpetuity, I stood there hopelessly stupid in my confidence that the adults — you know, the adults out there!— would surely put a stop to this. They must not know about it, I argued. They must be made to know what is going on.
Most troubling to both Erin and me was contemplating what a company might do when empowered with unlimited ownership over the photographic evidence of indiscretion, impropriety, lewd, crude, and idiotic behavior that will come from teenagers with cameras. Teenagers: a group of humans almost universally prone to moments of ludicrous self-involvement and asinine attempts at coolness. Seventeen long years ago on that nearly star-less night in Denver, I worried that in a few decades no one would be able to run for elected office without fear of being blackmailed by some tech company, or by a shadowy third party who had bought or copied the evidence of their youthful nonsense from some tech company.
That one time, aged 15, when a kid decided to go off on camera on a political tirade after reading Ayn Rand, or that one time a 17-year-old enamored with…