2012-05-30

On Our Supposed "Digital" World

Since the original proliferation of the internet in the 1990s, we have been inundated by the mantra-bordering-on-maintenance-rehearsal that we live digital lives in a digital world. The internet has purportedly revolutionized our lives in countless ways that the world has supposedly only begun to understand.

I would suggest that the triumph of information technology, however, has been greatly overstated. Here, I make my case.

Electronic and Paper Forms
The urge to convert all information to electronic form is said to be well underway, and for the most part this is true. However, the primary argument for further conversion is - in my opinion - far off base.

Electronic forms are said to eliminate waste and increase efficiency. Were electronic forms to be used exclusively, this would certainly be true. In actuality, though, for nearly every electronic form we encounter in our daily lives, we see a corresponding paper form.

In the case of sales receipts, for example, electronic forms have accomplished nothing with regard to the elimination of paper-based data. Every electronic point-of-sale record produces at least one receipt - and often times produces two or three instances of the same point-of-sale datum, all in addition to the electronic data. Pay with a credit card at your next trip to a restaurant, and you will see exactly what I mean.

More comically, I was recently at a business that adamantly insisted that I enter all of my personal information into their electronic records. After I did this, I had to complete a handwritten paper form indicating that I had completed the electronic form. In this case a paper form was clearly eliminated by an electronic one, and then an entirely new paper form was created for a need that didn't exist prior to the existence of the electronic form.

What, then, has electronic data accomplished in the realm of fillable forms?

Digital Identities
More interesting than data efficiency, though, is the twenty-first century concept of a "digital identity." Rather, this is a series of concepts.

First, "digital identity" refers to an individual's cultivated persona on various social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Blogger, and so forth. My own personal digital identity (in this usage) is found at the bottom of my blog and on my Google+ profile. My Facebook profile offers additional insight into this "identity." This identity consists of how I think I want to be seen by others who may read what I have to say. It is one part narcissism, one part navel-gazing, and one part personal opinion. People spend a lot of time cultivating this identity of theirs, even in some cases paying others to help them develop it.

Second, "digital identity" refers to the collection of personal data housed in official databases we need in order to function in modern society. This includes such "exciting" information as your legal name, address, phone number(s), social security numbers, tax IDs and other official government and credit agency numbers. On the surface, this stuff is extremely uninteresting.

However, as soon as one crosses an international border, this "digital identity" proves itself to be of paramount importance. Without government numbers, we have no credit history, no legal records of existence, no traceable location. In a legal sense, we nearly cease to exist without them.

Furthermore, this lack of existence generates punishment when ultimately discovered. See what happens when you try to work or acquire a loan without a social security number. You may find employment, even for an extended period of time, and you'll be just fine. As soon as the "problem" is discovered, however, you are threatened with heavy fines and legal actions that frankly cannot be carried out unless the "problem" is corrected.

It is fascinating to note that an absence of this second kind of "digital identity" allows a person more freedom and less punishment than its existence - all the way to the point that all of society's potential punishments require the official sanction of a random string of digits. Still, without these digits, we are denied access to many of the finer things of life: cars, houses, extremely high incomes, investments, and so on.

Organic Code
Perpetuation of information technology perpetuates a new philosophical question: What exactly is life? Centuries ago, it was a straight-forward question. We were born, we worked for food, shelter, family, we grew old, and we lived on in the memories of our loved ones. Today, websites display the total creative output of people long dead, exactly as it was when it was first produced. We no longer live an organic life consisting of our person and our deeds, and the memories of those we touched. Life is more than that.

Today, life is an endless stream of data generated at birth and following us around for the rest of our lives. It records our economic transactions, our school attendance (or lack thereof), our interaction with The State and with the various community groups with which we associate, and our willful choice to generate data of our own (by blogging, for example) and insert it into stream of analyze-able data.

But of course our consciousness is not the data-trail we leave by interacting with the electronic universe. Maybe in some poetic and metaphorical sense of it, we have always left a debris of data in our wake as we interacted with the universe. But the literal truth of the matter is that we still live inside our own physical, organic heads.

My prediction for the future is that, as time goes on, the more successful human beings will be those who best recognize that true existence is organic, not electronic at all. Such people will be best able to navigate or manipulate their data trail in the "digital" world, and who will prove most successful at face-to-face (i.e. human) interaction.

I could be wrong, of course, but that's how I see it today.