Michel Foucault's application of Jeremy Bentham's panoptic proposal for prison reform to the modern surveillance state has become a commonplace of contemporary cultural theory. And heaven knows that we are being watched by our government, by our computers, by our phones, and televisions, and automobiles, and goodness knows what else. It is also no secret that current and prospective employers monitor the social media imprints of their current and prospective employees—all those promises of airtight privacy settings and Snapchat anonymity notwithstanding. As I say, all this has become a commonplace of life in the digital era.
But a new wrinkle has entered the picture, a fold in the space/time fabric of modern life if you will, whereby the pre-digital past has come to haunt the digital present. For as the governor of Virginia and the prime minister of Canada now know to their cost, what goes into your school yearbook doesn't stay in your school yearbook. And thanks to an array of yearbook-posting alumni websites, anyone with an Internet connection can access virtually anyone's yearbook and immediately expose online those embarrassing moments that you thought were safely hidden in the fogs of time.
(A parenthetical autobiographical note: I would be highly amused if someone dug up my high school yearbook—yearbooks, actually, because I was on the staff for three years, the last two as editor-in-chief. The first of the three was a conventional celebration of football players, cheerleaders, and homecoming royalty, but I changed all that in the next two when I got editorial control, dedicating the first of them to the natural environment— including two photo essays complete with an accompanying poetic narrative—and the second devoted to a contemplation of the mystery of time itself, which included repeating reproductions of El Greco's "Saint Andrew and Saint Francis," which were intended to convey an ongoing dialog between a wise man and a seeker of temporal wisdom. You get one guess as to why I don't have to worry about any embarrassing party pics in my yearbooks.)
So it isn't enough to cancel your Twitter account, max out your privacy settings on Facebook (good luck with that), or simply take a long vacation from the Internet, for the Net's got you coming and going whatever you do. I expect that one's reaction to this state of affairs (which is itself of semiotic interest) is probably generational; that is, if you grew up with the Internet, none of this is likely to be particularly alarming, but if you remember the days when personal privacy was at least a value (if not always a reality), then it could be disturbing indeed. And there is no escaping the situation, for just as it is impossible to avoid the consequences of major cyber hacks by refusing to conduct any of your business affairs online (if you have any sort of bank account, credit/debit card, health record, or social security number, you are vulnerable no matter how hard you try to live outside the Web), there is no controlling what may surface from your past.