Needed: Universal Basic Biography

05Jun08

Nobody should be treated as though s/he were faceless.  At birth, and at important occasions thereafter, everyone should be entitled to the collection and preservation of a bit of basic audio, video, still image, and documentary information about them.  Important occasions might include turning a certain important age (e.g., 10, 21, 65), achieving a certain life milestone (e.g., graduating from high school or college, getting married, having kids), and being officially recognized (e.g., winning an award, medal, or significant promotion).  The information collected might include pictures and answers to basic questions (e.g., what achievement are you most proud of now?).  The information might be recorded by any variety of business and governmental offices (e.g., photography studios, motor vehicle bureaus) — just as it is possible, in some states, to get a motor vehicle inspection at virtually any mechanic’s shop.  The information might be placed into a webpage that can be edited in response to proven errors but not deleted, and that can be concealed, in part or almost entirely (except for e.g., name and a contact button), from public viewing.

One benefit of this proposal would be, as noted, to give everyone an official face.  With the benefit of a place to comb one’s hair and an opportunity to take a couple of pictures, people could have more respectful and higher-quality photos of themselves on their drivers’ licenses and, in the event of emergency (e.g., disappearance), in the newspapers.  If everyone had an official website, it would be possible to get in touch with them even if they didn’t sign up on reunion websites.  There would be at least one sense in which nobody would fall through the cracks, and there would be at least this one place where nobody was just a bum or other castoff.  There would be nobody in a developing nation who, as in the case of one acquaintance, had absolutely no childhood photos of herself and none of her now-deceased father.

Another benefit of this proposal would be to provide a basis for research and learning about the world’s people.  Instead of having to do expensive and sometimes unreliable census-taking and other fieldwork, the collection of at least the most basic data, one webpage per person, could facilitate basic data analysis (by e.g., country, gender, age).  This would be especially true if personal data, concealed from view for purposes of viewing individual biographical webpages, could nonetheless be polled anonymously for large numbers of people.

There would be security and confidentiality concerns.  Those concerns would be magnified to the extent that the personal biographical webpages were expanded to include more sensitive personal data (e.g., medical information available to persons to whom the patient provides a temporary password), and retained on file for purposes of anonymous research.  It is not presently clear whether international online security and law enforcement will improve to such a point that those concerns can become minimized.  To the extent that the Internet’s “Wild West” days can be consigned to history, public/private cooperation in developing a basic online biography for every person on the planet could be hugely informative, useful, and humane.

Conceivably, such a database could be developed to the point that it would replace some private databases about individuals.  If, for example, a person opted to have his/her credit information recorded here, it might be possible to forbid the collection and selling of such information from credit data agencies.  In this way, the person who wished to correct an error in such reports would have to do so only once, rather than going through the same struggle repeatedly with different credit agencies.  The same could be true of insurance and law enforcement records:  people might be able to gain more transparency about the truths or falsehoods that are being repeated about them by official individuals.  Security might also be improved, given that people may presently be entirely ignorant of incidents in which such data are leaked.

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