Becoming Immortal – the digital tattoo/scar!

In this blog post I want explore a theme that I have touched on before and that a lot of other people in the industry are covering as well – the idea of our own digital presence. Recently I watched a very good TED talk by Juan Enriquez, where he briefly looks at the idea that our digital presence, the information that exists about us on the internet, is like a tattoo. This is an interesting (and very relevant) idea for two reasons; firstly that the perception of tattoos is varied and in many cases negative, and secondly tattoos are largely (although not entirely) permanent and therefore the choice to have one is something that the person then has to live with.

Juan Enriquez uses an example whereby using face recognition technology it would be possible to instantly download data about that person from all manner of sites (Facebook, Twitter, Blog sites, GPS, SMS, etc. etc.) before you had so much as said hello to that person. As he says, there is an instant commercial application to this; a shop could find out all the information about a customer and alert a sales person to then promote a special offer that they know meets the persons interests and needs. You could see this approach as either negative and intrusive or positive and convenient, but there is a very interesting comparison here to the “Cookie Law” issues that arose in the last couple of years. The problem that many people will see with this is that assumptions are being made about you that are not based on getting to know you personally, and you are being treated differently because of that. But the opposite could also be argued – that they are getting to know you so that they make your experience more relevant.

The biggest issue, as Enriquez correctly identifies, is that like a tattoo our digital presence in this case is built up of data about ourselves that is fixed. It is possible to change that data over time but because it is in ‘the cloud’ whatever data they see about us is what they will use to decide how to engage with us at that moment. Unlike a tattoo though, which a person decides upon (hopefully with great thought), the data about us is more than likely to be more than just what we decide it will be. It will be made up of data from all sorts of sources, some of which will not be controlled by us and may be misleading. Take a situation where someone goes for a job interview and the company uses this same technique to perform a covert assessment of attitudes and aptitude before talking to them. Their name may have been mentioned, with or without their knowledge, on a forum involving a debate about a hot political issue. The company may then use this information to make a judgement about the candidate without knowing the context of the forum or even if that person is aware of their link to it.

Another point that Juan makes, which is very relevant, is that tattoos are permanent and when it comes to digital tattoos this is important both now and after we have gone. There are plenty of cases where people have lost their jobs because they have been foolish enough to write something derogatory, confidential or abusive on a social media site. That foolishness is in the cloud and being syndicated to potentially lots of other sites, so deleting it from the original one won’t necessarily help. This mistake may stop that person getting a similar job in the future as well. Mud sticks!

This is only going to get more and more important to bear in mind. If our digital presence is going to be used to research us then we need to be sure that what appears in their is something that we are happy with. We will never be able to completely control it, but making sure that we don’t assume anonymity because we are sat at a computer is pivotal. A couple of years ago I experienced an embryonic version of this in a job interview. I has listed on my LinkedIn profile that I am a freelance photographer, because I saw LinkedIn as a place to show my varying skills as well as my current job role. In the interview I was subjected to the Spanish Inquisition over this decision and they used it as a basis for concern about my long term viability, on the assumption that I would want to eventually become a full time photographer. Unfortunately they made this assumption without first asking my view on this, so they didn’t understand how I was using LinkedIn and what my intentions were.

So what about the good side of a digital tattoo. Well there are some very real advantages and the near future, let alone the distant future, will rely on these more and more. We already have near field communication (NFC) technology that allows us to pay for things using our phone, without taking our phone out of our pocket. And the phone we carry around now is already a portable persona for ourselves. As we store more and more information on these devices they will start to be used more and more as a way of us passing our information seamlessly to the environment around us, allowing us to suppress things we are not interested in and engage with things that we are interested in. The idea of being able to personalise not just the online world, but also the physical world, by effectively putting our digital key into the lock means that we will be able to engage with things in a whole new way. Whether this is the dashboard of our car personalising the layout to us when we get in it, or it is checking in for a flight by simply walking through the airport doors.

When I got a tattoo I surprised quite a lot of people. Some made negative comments, some were very surprised. One particularly stuck in my mind, a comment put on Facebook that said “Well, you’ve scared yourself for life now sunshine”. Whether tongue in cheek or not, that is a very interesting way of looking at it, and relevant to this subject. There is a saying in IT, “you put rubbish in, you get rubbish out”, I think it is a better way of looking at it. My tattoo, which is on my back, took a long time to design and has a lot of personal meaning to me. I am proud of it and it is anything but a scar – but it is permanent and it says a lot about me. But a lot of people have tattoos that are not very well thought through and do become scars. They also say a lot about that person, not necessarily now but certainly at the time when they got the tattoo in the first place.

We need to think about our digital presence – our record – in the same way. Will it be a permanent symbol of what you are, or will it be a scar that comes back to haunt you? The world is only going to get more complex and data more entwined. My advice is make sure you don’t do anything stupid that might mean your digital tattoo is more of a scar than a symbol.

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