The I cannot be rescued: data trails and digital identity
A guest essay by Andrew Keen, critic of the digital revolution
The Internet is omnipresent. It reaches into the most private corners of our lives, where it takes on meaning that contributes to determining our identity. And not only in a positive way.
Andrew Keen has been following the digital revolution for years, writing critical essays and books such as the bestseller “The Internet is not the Answer”. Foto: © Jens Panduro
In July 1993, at the dawn of the digital age, the “New Yorker” magazine ran a cartoon featuring two dogs and a computer. The first dog is perched on a chair in front of a desktop computer and the second dog is next to him. “On the Internet,” one tells the other, “nobody knows you’re a dog.”
This cartoon assumed that while we could look at the Internet, it couldn’t look back at us - similar to the way we understand television. Our identity is determined solely in the physical world: that was the common-sense understanding at the time. We had the power over what people thought of us on the Internet. Today, 25 years later, this cartoon reminds us how our interaction with the Internet has stealthily changed: We read the Internet – but the Internet is reading along with us. And in doing so, it is writing a story about us of its own.
Digital data are the new reality
We are living in the age of Big Data. Every minute around the clock, Facebook Messenger users share 216,302 photos, Instagram users “like” 2,430,555 posts and Twitter users send 6,678 emoji-filled tweets. Everywhere we are leaving trails of “breadcrumbs” behind us – voluntarily and involuntarily, like with online transactions or mobile telephone and GPS signals. All these personal data are creating an increasingly intimate record of our lives – both for ourselves and for those who, for one reason or another, want to know more about us.
The result: our digital identities are increasingly merging with, and sometimes even replacing, our physical identities. When companies hire new staff, they scour social media to determine the suitability of candidates. Universities check Facebook to make sure that their applicants haven’t posted incriminating photos. When men or women date other men or women online, they Google each other first to try to verify that their date is who they claim to be. All of this has far-reaching societal consequences.
Facebook knows us better than we know ourselves
In 2010, an Austrian student researching a thesis asked Facebook to send him all the data it had attached to his account. They sent him a 1,200-page PDF containing records of all the IP addresses he had used to log in, all the records of every message he’d exchanged including all his “pokes”, and even items he’d thought he’d deleted. Facebook, in other words, knew this student better than he knew himself.
Three key problems associated with digitalized identity
1st problem: the Internet never forgets. With digitalization came the loss of innocence associated with childhood. In the physical world, our youthful indiscretions aren’t recorded forever. Not at all so the Internet, which stores every slip-up - and reveals it again. For this reason, technologists and entrepreneurs must find ways to create digital data that will disappear over time.
2nd problem: “Big Data” is “Big Money”. The big-data Silicon Valley companies are developing business models that generate profit largely based on selling advertising around their search engines or social networks. The more these companies know about us, the more valuable we are to their advertisers. The digital economy is therefore by definition a surveillance economy.
3rd problem: risk of a digital dictatorship. Currently the Baltic republic of Estonia is pioneering a form of e-citizenship in which all its records are digitalized, from tax payments to property deeds to citizens’ criminal history. The Estonian government is earning the trust of its citizens because it is protecting their data; it has built transparency into its system, so that citizens are alerted when a government agency accesses their records. But in non-democratic countries, like China, the digitalization of records is creating the architecture of an Orwellian kind of digital dictatorship where citizens can be valued according to their political orthodoxy.
The light at the end of the data tunnel
Like it or not, digital identity is taking over. If we want to regain our privacy, we need more responsible regulations, better education and innovations to mitigate the dark side of the digital revolution.
About Andrew Keen
Andrew Keen is one of the best known commentators on the digital revolution. He is the author of books critical of technology such as “The Internet is not the Answer” und “Cult of the Amateur”. His newest book will appear in 2018 under the title “How to Fix the Future”.