No Second Chances

Starting over has never been an easy thing. For much of human history, we’ve been integrated with our tribe or tied to the land. Strangers from elsewhere were viewed with distrust in spite of all the major religions espousing love and hospitality for such people. But somewhere along the way, it became possible to leave behind who you were and build a new life. I’m not here to judge the people that did that. I’m sure they had their reasons, some good and some bad. But starting over has become increasingly difficult as technology advances. Now our pasts and our mistakes can follow us with unrelenting persistence. Is this what we want? If not, what can we do to stop it?

How hard has it become to relocate? To simply pick up and move to a place with better jobs and more opportunities. For many, it’s not possible due to a lack of resources and an inability to shed obligations. They’re upside-down on their mortgage and default means bankruptcy. They can barely make ends meet and are unable to save enough for the higher cost of living that they would need to transition to. From old mining communities to urban ghettos to small towns scattered through the Rust Belt, people are simply locked into a life without the financial means to change it.

How powerful can a checkbox become? If you’re filling out an application for employment with a felony conviction, the answer is that it can be devastatingly powerful. Whether you view incarceration as a form of punishment or a mechanism for rehabilitation, the final result should be the same. Once someone is released from prison, their debt to society has been repaid. Full stop. Instead, we insist on stripping them of many rights and making it harder for them to find work. This, in turn, makes it more likely that they’ll reoffend because survival requires resources. Or consider the high school student that shares a nude picture of herself with a boyfriend. We consider minors to have different legal standing than adults in most cases. But in this, both minors are now at risk of being labeled as sexual predators for decades, if not a lifetime.

How long do we hold a grudge against those that offend our collective sensibilities? I’m not a fan of cancel-culture. People have bad days. People say stupid things or try to make a joke that falls flat. I don’t believe that free speech should mean consequence-free speech, but what’s the protocol for absolution? How do the canceled appeal their case to the mob? Words that I uttered ten years ago (or even two years ago) are not relevant to who I am now. But for every incident that invites our tribal moral outrage, we continue to insist that past is present.

How do we operate with a shroud of persistent, digital information that we can neither see nor change? Google knows a lot about you. It’s likely that Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and the like have a good bit of data as well. So does your credit card processor and your ISP. We leave a trail of data in the wake of living and it accumulates quickly. The Chinese have a dystopian social credit score for their citizens. This might sound nightmarish to many in the West, but we allow corporations to amass as much if not more data. Add a few links to those chains of information, apply some machine learning, and you have virtual avatars for the majority of humanity that can be simulated and judged in a myriad of ways. Introduce feedback loops and ask yourself if the algorithms are enhancing human flourishing or constraining it?

Our tools and our institutions should serve us, not the other way around. Increasingly our technology and our perspectives crystalize us into static entities. A simple, unchanging, easily characterized “other” instead of a complex process of becoming. This is a punishingly simplistic model. It’s lacking in grace, wisdom, and an understanding of human potential. There must be room for growth and change. There must be space for forgiveness and mercy. None of us want an invisible virtual brand to haunt us through our lives. None of us want to be judged forever on the actions of our worst days. None of us want to live in a world where there are no second chances.

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