One of my favorite movies is “Random Harvest.” It was released in 1942 and stars Greer Garson and Ronald Colman. It is a sweet story about an English soldier found on a Word War I battlefield. He has amnesia and no identification. No one, including himself, knows who he is.
The movie was well-received. As is typical in Hollywood, about ten years later they began thinking of doing a remake, perhaps updating it to World War II. But they had to drop the project because no one could figure out how there wouldn’t be some way to find out who the man was. So 100 years ago it was possible to be anonymous, but almost 70 years ago it wasn’t.
Twenty-five years ago, while I was doing systems analysis and programming in the Washington, DC area, I went to a computer conference. One speaker talked about how everything should be linked, saying he should only have to tell his information to the government once. Another speaker worried about what the government would do with this ability to know so much about each of us. He said the only saving grace at the time was that the various government computer systems were incompatible and couldn’t talk to each other — a technological Babel. Since then, of course, things have been (more or less) standardized, computer processors have gotten faster and storage has gotten cheaper. We didn’t have data mining then as we do now. Voice recognition was in its infancy and we didn’t have facial recognition.
The focus of concern about loss of privacy was with the government. We didn’t think a lot about businesses. Social media was still in its infancy. Now, if I look for a pair of shoes on line, when I go to Facebook I get ads for shoes.
In the effort to control the pandemic, contact tracers are trying to find who people who test positive may have spent time with. I read that about 20% offer up no names. Did they just brush up against strangers? Or are they willing to put all sorts of details of their lives on social media, for anyone anywhere in the world to see, but are unwilling to tell a contact tracer who they ate lunch with last week?
My last name is uncommon, but there are plenty of us scattered thinly about. When I lived in Wyoming, I was curious to see if I was the only one in the state. (Wyoming population is only half a million.) There were three names — me, my dead partner who had adopted my last name, and another person several hundred miles away. But with my entry came three old addresses of mine, two of which were correct.
I think of all this because last week I got a piece of mail addressed to me using my old name. I changed my name eleven years ago and have moved twice since then, but somehow Miracle Ear has figured out I live here and am old enough that I may need hearing aids. Perhaps it is reassuring that they don’t know so much about me to realize I already have hearing aids.
“Random Harvest” is looking more and more like a period piece.