Living and working in a digital world

It’s been eleven weeks since my first reflections on my digital identity for my ‘The Digital Society’ course and it’s interesting how much (and yet also how little) my understanding of and interaction with this digital world has changed.

My fascination with learning about the web was really sparked by The Virtual Revolution – a BBC documentary that explored the idea of the web in modern society. I wrote about the documentary back in 2010 and thought this would be a good opportunity to reflect on how my digital footprint, digital identity and concept of online worlds has changed, not only since the beginning of this course, but since my first real interaction with an academic look at the digital world.

Whilst it’s still not something I’ve ever personally experienced, I no longer find the idea of 16 hour days in front of a computer quite so ridiculous. My obsession with the web means that I can easily spend upwards of ten hours a day in front of a screen: reading, writing and just ‘being’ online.

I found myself nodding along as I read Is Google Making Us Stupid? (Carr, 2008).

Twitterature is the closest I've come to reading fiction in a while.

Twitterature is the closest I’ve come to reading a fictional book in a while.

I really resonated with the idea that I use the web as though I’m on a jet ski – trying to cover as much as possible, but only really skimming the surface. I’ll click through links (often found on social networks) to try and consume as much information as possible, and yet I haven’t read a book cover to cover in over a year.

Carr goes on to talk about how technology has evolved since the days of Nietzche and when he gets to discussing the more recent developments. He reflects on how Frederick Winslow Taylor’s ‘industrial choreography’ from the early 20th century is still very much alive at Google today. I’ve always thought of Eric Schmidt, Chief Executive at Google, as a poster boy for modern technology but when he relayed the company’s mission ‘to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ it was the accessibility part of the mission that stood out to me.

In The Digital Society, we’ve talked a lot about ‘the digital divide’. That is, the way in which the world is becoming divided into those with internet access, and those without.

For those with internet access, “the World Wide Web empowers individuals by enabling them to access or create knowledge online, removing control of information from governments and the media” (Krotoski, 2010) but what of those who don’t have access to the internet?

Well, one way to bridge the digital divide is to try and offer internet access to more people. Schemes such as One Laptop per Child have been set up to provide children from disadvantaged backgrounds with laptops to connect them with the wealth of information on the internet. It’s a great initiative, but there are many factors that must be considered when giving a laptop to a child. Laptops require charging, which means families must be able to accept the additional costs that come with them as well as the security risk that having a laptop poses. Additionally, having access to these technologies is only half of the issue. Without training, people will remain digitally illiterate and will be unable to make the most of the technology that they’ve been gifted.

Other schemes exist that intend to bridge the gap in a more structured way.

La Red de Innovación aims to provide internet access on computers in fixed locations – eliminating concerns over the cost of households using extra electricity and the personal security risks.

There’s a lot happening closer to home too.

Libraries are becoming hubs for those without internet access and electronic village halls are being created around the country. The one run by Sunderland City Council provides access and training to try and help the community become more digitally aware and literate.

But once you get internet access and training, there’s no guarantee that what you’ll be accessing is this uncensored web of information that Krotoski paints. Whether it’s the giant cage that exists over the Internet in China (Epstein, 2013) or the intricacies of Google’s Search Engine Optimisation rules that mean Interflora can be top of the search results one day and banished to the back of the pile the next.

Interflora were penalised by Google for their aggressive Valentine's Day marketing online.

Interflora were penalised by Google for their aggressive Valentine’s Day marketing online

So how has my digital identity changed because of all this?

Honestly? In the past three months hasn’t. Over the course of this twelve week course my understanding of the issues surrounding digital literacy, the digital divide and digital citizenship has grown immensely. So whilst I may have learnt about the perils of hacktivism, that skills are just as important as access and that there are some shocking statistics out there about those without internet, my actual online presence has only changed minimally as a result of a session on ‘Creativity and Connections’ with my new personalised LinkedIn URL.

But since the days of The Virtual Revolution, my digital identity has been tweaked hundreds of times. Back then I was surprised to learn that Google could personalise ads and search results could change positions and was wary of their knowledge of my personal information, now I’ve learn the basics of SEO and have more of my personal information online than ever before. I also see the huge parallels between the themes in the documentary and topics covered in my course. I’ve learnt to refer to Homo Interneticus as Digital Natives (Prensky, 2001), that Stephen Fry’s opinions on how older generations should embrace the technology-driven youth are shared by many and that politics and technology are closer linked than ever before .

And what will I do with my new understanding?

Who knows. Maybe I’ll work all this knowledge into my career, think up the next scheme to bridge the digital divide or help the digitally excluded learn new skills. Or maybe this new knowledge will remain just another drop in the sea of information that I’ll skim over on my jet ski.

After all, I am a digital native with the “attention span of a gnat” (Prensky, 2001).