A friend of mine had a rather unique problem sometime back. His daughter’s class teacher had started putting their daily homework online on a Facebook page. She wanted the parents to follow that page, so that they knew what was happening in the class.
“So what is the problem?” I asked him.
“I don’t have a Facebook account,” my friend replied.
“So open one,” I suggested.
And this is when things got really interesting.
“I don’t like the voyeurism that comes with Facebook,” he said, trying to give me a reason for his reluctance to open a Facebook account.
“Yeah. Like you may get to see the honeymoon pictures of a couple holidaying in Goa. The irony of course is that you had not been invited for their wedding.”
“Come on, you are nitpicking here,” I tried to protest.
“No I am serious. Think about the digital footprint that you are leaving out there. And that is something that makes me uncomfortable. What if someone tags some old pictures of mine from my engineering days, where I am looking drunk or maybe even stoned? You may tell me you can always remove the tag. Yes, but it is not always possible to keep track. And given this, how will I tell my daughter in the years to come that smoking pot and excess drinking are not good for health. Also, what I write will stay there forever. Have you ever thought about these things?”
I guess my friend had a point. In fact, my mind went back to a conversation I had had with Ferdinando Pennarolla, an associate professor at the department of management and technology, Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, a few years back. Pennarola had made several interesting points during the course of our conversation about our digital lives.
“The consumers are not asking themselves to what extent their digital lives are there forever. When you write something on the internet it is written on the stone. It is forever. It is very difficult to erase things on the internet. Once you get Googlised it is very difficult to cancel or erase your news. There are many stories where people cannot erase their contribution to things like community groups and forums,” he had said.
Also, as we spend more and more of our lives on the internet the question of what happens to our digital lives after we die, comes into the picture well. We spend a lot of our time these days reading emails on Gmail, making friends and posting pictures on Facebook and telling the world at large what we think about it, in less than 140 characters, on Twitter.
Other than this we have subscribed to newsletters, articles from various websites, blogs and so on. We also have multiple logins and passwords that we have created on various e-commerce websites. What happens to all this when we are no longer around?
Or as Pennarola put it “Who will have access to all of this? Will these accounts just be cancelled because they will remain unutilised? Will the vendors still keep on bombarding our mailboxes with news and advertising? I think there is a need of an integrated service that in the future will take care of all our digital and networked life, and pass it to our loves, according to our will.”
For people like me, who primarily write for websites, there is also the question of who gets the copyright for all the writing that has been published and will continue to be published digitally. That is one part of the problem that most of us are not thinking about.
A few days after meeting my friend I happened to start reading a rather fascinating book called Who Owns the Future? written by a philosopher and computer scientist called Jaron Lanier. In this book Lanier raises many other fascinating questions regarding our digital lives that do not have easy answers.
Take the case of Gmail, Facebook and Twitter. A large portion of people who use email these days use Gmail. When it comes to social networking, Facebook happens to be the number one preference. When was the last time you logged onto Orkut? And do you even remember Bigadda?
As far as micro-blogging goes, have you even ever heard the name of any other website other than Twitter?
By concentrating our digital lives around a few companies, we are working with the assumption that they will stay around forever. But for anyone who understands a little bit about technology companies, knows that has never been the case.
“It’s sad to say, but all young things change over time. The prototypical great Silicon Valley company Hewlett-Packard, which inspired all the rest to come, encountered in the not-too-distant past a period of now only crummy management, but weird, tawdry scandals, board intrigues, and demoralization. Chances are that some of today’s bright young companies will go through similar periods someday. It could happen to Facebook or Twitter,” writes Lanier.
Lanier then discusses the case of Facebook in some detail. As he writes “Suppose Facebook never gets good enough at snatching the ‘advertising’ business from Google. That’s still a possibility as I write this. In that event, Facebook could go into decline, which would present a global emergency…If Facebook starts to fail commercially, suddenly people all over the world would be at the risk of losing old friends and family ties, or perhaps critical medical histories.”
The same argument stands true for Gmail as well. For most of us it is a repository of a large amount of information, communication and documentation, that we need to keep going back to time and again.
In that sense, these websites are becoming more like electric utilities as every day goes by. Something that we really cannot do without. As Lanier puts it “It’s a piece of infrastructure people need, and when people need something they eventually ask the government to make sure they have it. That’s why government ended up in the middle of water, electricity, roads, and the like.”
These are things that no one has really thought about, which is clearly worrying. As Lanier concludes “The death of Facebook must be an option if it is to be a company at all. Therefore your online identity should not be fundamentally grounded in Facebook or something similar.”
This article originally appeared in the Wealth Insight magazine dated Feb, 2014
(Vivek Kaul is the author of Easy Money. He can be reached at [email protected])