Technology makes it possible to work easier, faster, and more efficiently. But it also makes it possible to tube a career, damage a brand, or send a stock plummeting with the same ease, speed, and proficiency. Is a little technology a dangerous thing -- or is technology just underscoring the carelessness and stupidity that was once easier to hide?
Within the past week, we've been entertained by the twin treats of a Democratic Congressman's photo folly and a potential Republican Presidential candidate's revisionist history. Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY) short-circuited a potentially promising career in the instantaneous share of a questionable tweet. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin created questions about her education with a now viral video detailing the strange and unknown ride of patriot Paul Revere.
None of us asked for either a crotch shot of a man in form-fitting underwear or rambling rhetoric about Revere's unconfirmed connection to bells and guns. But we got it anyway -- in a flash. There's no five-second delay on Twitter, no way to stop a viral video or put the lid back on Pandora's (or a politician's) electronically powered box.
(Earlier today, Andrew Breitbart's BigGovernment.com and BigJournalism.com reported Weiner's tweet may have been more than a one-off incident. The sites claim a woman has come forward with what she claims are intimate photographs, chats, and email she allegedly exchanged with Weiner.)
A little technology may be even more dangerous than the little bit of knowledge, tact, or restraint it exposes.
Technology has equalized opportunities for public figures and private citizens -- from politicians and corporate executives to the staff members and junior executives who work with them -- to expose insecurities, prejudices, fears, fantasies, and dubious beliefs.
Before Twitter and Facebook, back in the days when video cameras were too big to carry in a pocket and phones were attached to walls, most of us had a reasonable expectation of keeping the bulk of our mistakes hidden from public view. No one posted mobile uploads of the things we said or did before we even left the room -- or woke up from the party the night before.
There were different expectations of privacy: Nothing was publicized until someone became angry or hurt enough to call either the press or an attorney. Remember the Texaco debacle in the mid-1990s -- the incident spawned by allegations of racism among senior management?
In 1994, seven years before the company merged with Chevron (NYSE: CVX), Texaco executive Richard Lundwall secretly recorded a meeting of the company's finance department. Lundwall and others at the meeting used pejorative words to describe black workers, mocked a Kwanzaa celebration, and discussed destroying the documents on minority hiring.
But no one knew about the incident until two years later -- after Lundwall lost his job and, in an act of revenge or repentance, he turned over the tapes to a lawyer suing Texaco for discrimination. Within two days, the $100 trading price of the company's stock slid 4%, slicing $1.2 billion from Texaco's market value. It took about a year for the share price to rebound.
How fast would similar comments spread through cyberspace today? And how long would the damage they create remain? Would it be harder for potential investors to forget if they could endlessly replay the comments the executives made from embedded files on multiple Websites?
Weinergate and the New Adventures of Paul Revere will gradually fade, replaced by someone else's convoluted logic or offensive gaffe. With any luck, a celebrity or a politician will utter the offensive words, instead of a CEO of a Fortune 500 firm. At least that way, the only cost will be one person's future, rather than a loss of shareholder value.