Fellow Toastmasters, and welcome guests… Let me tell you something — Michael Richards is an amateur!
If you thought that Michael Richards, the actor who plays Kramer on the comedy series Seinfeld, was prejudiced after hearing his racial tirade last month, let me tell you — I am even worse! Michael Richards made the headlines by using old worn-out prejudices; I on the other hand, have invented an entirely new way of unfairly judging people.
A number of years ago, I was looking through an old high school yearbook. As I flipped through the pages, I thought to myself “Hmmm…. I wonder that this guy is up to these days? He was so popular in school – he must be very successful”. Or “This girl always got good grades — I’ll bet she’s at the top of the corporate ladder right now”.
Rather than merely wonder, I decided to satisfy my curiosity — so it was off to Google, to do a little searching. Several times, after typing in the name of an old school friend, nothing of significance appeared in the search results. There were a few people with the same name scattered around the world, but nothing about my friend. I thought to myself “Nothing? How can this be? I can’t believe that he never accomplished anything with his life!”
But how did I know this? What proof did I have that these people never amounted to anything? None really… and thus was born, a new prejudice. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I was now judging people not based on their character, their benevolence, charity or their contributions to society, but by the size of their cyber-footprint. Ten years ago, no one was judged in this way, but now I am doing it all the time.
If I am guilty of practicing this new prejudice, then I am doing it in the most benign way: I am using one’s Internet trail to look for the good things they have done in their lives – their accomplishments and awards. Many others use it in the opposite way: to look for evidence of a checkered past.
Several newspaper articles have this advice to women going out on dates: before you meet him, Google him – especially if this is a blind date. Find out what kind of a person he is first. Employers will often Google potential candidates in addition to reviewing their resume. The rationale being that a resume is customized to include only good things, but our online footprint is beyond our control. Everything about us, good and bad, is preserved in the world’s digital archives for all to see.
It seems that the trail of digital breadcrumbs we leave behind is being used increasingly to define us as people. A generation ago, we were told by parents and teachers “you are what you eat”. These days, we are what we type —- it would appear that our essence has been reduced to a persistent stream of ones and zeroes.
But isn’t this what motivates us? Philanthropists will donate millions of dollars to hospitals to help society… but also to have a hospital wing named after them. On a smaller scale, art galleries and museums will put on their lobby walls, the names of their largest donors — usually engraved into a bronze plaque. On a still smaller scale, graffiti artists may deface a wall with “Bob was here”, not out of malice, but as a way of standing out among the over six billion inhabitants of this planet. Rich or poor, they are all saying the same thing “I was here. Please take notice of my existence”.
I concluded that not only is this new prejudice not a bad thing, but it is becoming an increasingly common and even acceptable thing in our society. I think that blogs are replacing graffiti as the preferred method of expression – far more people will read your blog than read your spray-painted slogans.
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. A more contemporary reference is Nicole Kidman’s character in the movie To Die For, who said “You aren’t really anybody in America if you’re not on TV”. Philosophers have asked “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it actually make a sound?”. As we move through the 21st century, I believe many of us will soon wonder the same thing “If your name hasn’t been indexed by any search engines, have you really lived”?