A technological solution is not the answer to our privacy woes. This is the juicy core of my argument in this essay I recorded for the 16th July 2013 edition of The Guardian’s Tech Weekly, not long after Glen Greenwald reported on the US government’s extensive cyber-surveillance.

Here’s the transcript:

The government is listening in to our telephone calls. Corporations are collecting us in huge databases and selling us to the highest bidder. Employers are looking at our Facebook profiles. Potential lovers are doing due diligence via Google. And kids – oh the kids! – are exposing more and more and more and more information about themselves online, making it virtually impossible not to stumble over a mobile phone number a home address or a piece of information that really should have remained under wraps.

But there’s a more interesting issue just behind the tissue paper veneer of the privacy debate. And that’s how we learn to grow with a system that has the memory of a pachyderm.

Allow me to explain.

Developmental psychologists are the scientists who describe cognitive capacity in children, from birth through to adolescence, as their brains settle in to the hormonal and neurobiological soup that they’ll surf for the rest of their lives. They also describe their social development, the evolutions that start early and continue throughout the lifespan.

Life is characterised by a series of commonly recognised “beats”: punctuations that distinguish one stage from the next. I’m talking about coming of age rites, graduations, weddings, parenthood, that kind of thing. Those are beats most everyone dances to, usually at recognised, occasionally drunken, rituals.

But beats can also be more personal experiences: first day at school, moving out of the house, learning to drive a car, getting your first job. Making a massive mistake, getting divorce, getting out of prison, having a midlife crisis, moving away, moving to, experiencing a sexual or religious awakening.

At each, the person who you feel you were before is not the person who you feel you are afterwards. You’ve shed the old skin and have started anew, as fresh and crispy as the pastry of a Gregg’s sausage roll. A beat is a socially accepted, commonly understood life change, in which you are allowed to relegate what happened then to then, and what’s coming next to now.

You’re not deleting your past by moving on. That would be pointless. Not only will the past, in pretty much every case bar a few extraordinary ones, come back to haunt you, but you might want to revisit it like a psychological barometer to measure against who you are now and, hopefully, how far you’ve come. Or, perhaps, to reconnect with who you have been, and why that explains where you’re headed. Laughing with your aunt at Uncle Vinny posing for the camera in a family holiday snap, eating a particular dish, listening to an old album, cringing at the contents of a teenage diary, even having a low-commitment coffee with a person you’ve not seen in a while are parts of you that you can visit, even if you don’t ever want to live there again.

OK. Answer me this: how often are those artifacts of your past used against you? How often are they applied to the person you are now by the people who were then without any reference to the beat when they happened? Seriously, apart from ceremonies in which it’s expected to throw back for the sake of throwing forward – like a wedding, for example – the actions that are clearly from past beats very rarely are taken so out of context that people think you are now what you were then. Because there can be a lot of discomfort, a lot of dissonance being confronted by the things you did when you didn’t know any better.

So why should it be different online?

Well, because the web never forgets.

When you search for someone – whether it’s for a date or a job interview or because you’re just curious – what comes back in one set of search results is their whole life story with actions from all their beats all jumbled up in one single mass. Everything – from the stupid things you did as a kid (that naturally belong to the “Childhood” beat) to the stupid things we do as grown ups – is presented as if it’s now. As if we have not progressed. As if we have not been rehabilitated. As if we have not learned from our mistakes. And learning from our mistakes is what personal progress and the psychological ideal of self-actualisation – or in lay terms, “being all that you can be” – are all about.

The web allows no concession for how we evolve socially or psychologically throughout our lifetimes because it can’t. It doesn’t have the ability to make that judgement. So depending how how much information is online about you, you are at once an infant, a toddler, a school kid, a teenager, a young adult, married with kids, an OAP and, possibly, dead. That is obviously impossible and inhuman. But then again, it is a machine. It doesn’t care if your college-age silliness ends up in a recruiter’s in tray a decade later.

So why are we expecting some kind of technological solution to save us from ourselves? Because we, weirdly, believe technology will save us.

All technology can do is collect bits of us and make connections that may, or indeed may not, be there. How does slapping an algorithm onto a social, human issue solve the underlying problem? Yet this is the proposal under the hammer inside some of the world’s largest web companies. For example, last month, Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt said (not for the first time) that “the internet needs a delete button”. Others think information should have a sell-by date, and fade over time. Perhaps we should remind ourselves at this point that the technology serves to connect humans to humans and humans to human-generated information. Why are we looking for a digital solution to this inherently social problem?

We – not the machines – have the ability to discern between a person’s life beats. This very subtle, contextual social and human phenomenon shouldn’t be delegated to a computer brain. We can recognise that who someone was may not be who he or she is and take that into consideration when considering a job applicant, a potential lover or a collaborator.

There is currently a lot of debate about who should have access to what. This issue is not about privacy. This is a larger debate about context: about growing up with an online footprint, and how we deal with the way people express themselves in the modern world.

As we grow alongside the web – itself barely out of diapers – we shall also become more mature. In the future, we won’t turn to it for answers as a fundamentalist might to a god, we’ll remember we’re dealing with human beings behind the machine.

People change. Data, however, does not.

Listen to the audio on Tech Weekly at The Guardian.