Should we be afraid that images of ourselves exist online for the viewing pleasure of potential employers, landlords or professors? This question came up in a recent Digital History class and the variety of responses revealed a serious re-negotiation of the public and private boundaries in which we exist. Images once stored on film, developed in a store and placed in books to be viewed by those with access, are now digitally captured and transported around the world in the blink of an eye. Words once written in the privacy of a diary are now posted on social media websites for a public as broad as you desire. In both cases, it is clear people are exercising their free will in distributing information about themselves.
But what about individuals in your images or on the pages of your diary, whose wills are not consulted before their privacy is placed on public display? You may be sharing your night at the pub with friends, but your friend who has had a few too many, and finds himself searching for his pants (and his dignity) in the city fountain, may not want to share that moment with his employer (or employees). In response to this reality, some suggested “cleaning up” your digital fingerprints. The advice was to perform routine Google searches and get rid of those incriminating images that might mar professional development.
Another option was to create multiple online presences. For colleagues, employers, and working professionals you can create a Facebook profile that includes your CV, volunteer service, or pictures of you rescuing cats from burning buildings. For your friends or casual acquaintances, you can create a Facebook profile that includes youtube videos you are watching while at work, or, that picture of you in the fountain the other night.
Considering these varied approaches to constructing a digital identity, and not particularly agreeing with any of them, primarily for the amount of work involved, I wondered if the discussion missed the mark by failing to clarify the limits inherent in an identity that is digital.
Early in the semester we discussed the differences between digital and analog representations of reality by looking at their representations of time. Imagining before us a digital and an analog clock we noted:
- A clock that uses hour, minute, and second hands continually in motion to present the time.
- The time between 3:00am and 3:01 am includes multiple values, evident by the changing hands.
- Due to visible changes, telling time requires measurement.
- A clock presents time, (eg: 3:00am) as an unchanging/limited value until it presents a new time (eg: 3:01am).
- Since the visible changes are not evident moment-by-moment, telling time requires reading the displayed value.
- In short, a digital clock is limited to presenting a sample of time at any one moment.
The differences between these two representations of time showcase the limitations of digital renderings of reality. In addition to time, digital recordings convert the properties of sound into bits that closely (but never completely) imitate the original. And digital images that convert physical reality into bits (pixels) are no better at capturing reality than a pointillist painting. How does this relate to digital identity?
Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from clocks, cd’s, and cameras when discussion our online personas. Images of ourselves on the Internet are a sampling of reality, and at best (or at worst) a sampling of your identity. As such, images fail to reflect the multiple values that make up ones’ identity. Rather our identity is analog. It consists of change over time and therefore, requires a degree of measurement to accurately assess. The professor raised an interesting point to the class about wanting to work or study in an environment where you felt you had to censor yourself. Such digital self-censorship is similar to the recording artist who digitally enhances his voice for recording purposes. He creates an illusory sound, covering up the mistakes which make him human.
Understanding our identity as both analog and digital might offer some alternatives to the digital censorship advocated in the classroom last week. First, digital editing covers up those samples of reality that make you human. As the professor mentioned, you want to be able to be yourself (warts and all) in your place of employment.
And second, since digital representation involves a sampling of reality, for those of us with an online presence that rarely deviates from nude fountain pictures, maybe less time should be spent photo-shopping the samples and more time spent fixing the reality.