Ever since the Internet invaded our lives, there has been an increasing hype of creating a saturated digital space, to leave a digital footprint of activities and to connect with other people across the continent. And even amidst the hype of digitizing lives, we haven’t been attentive to the sacrifices that society has to make in order to step into the digital era, There is no doubt that the digital space is an immense and extremely important part of existence now.
In fact, the World Economic Forum estimates suggest that by 2023, 80% of people will have a digital presence. But what does it mean? What are the implications of intensifying the digital space and increased digital inclusion? WEF has its own suggestions and as the organization believes, it’s important to consider all sides of the trend.
The digital space has certainly evolved over the past 20 years. If 10 years ago digital presence was interpreted as having a mobile phone number, email address and perhaps a personal website or a MySpace page, it now includes digital interactions and traces through a multitude of online platforms and media.
The multitude is certainly one of the hallmarks of the modern digital world since it is extremely rare that one user is present on just one channel. Instead, we have accounts on a range of websites that often force us to share personal data with one another for the sake of convenience.
The incredible connection and immersion in the digital space don't end there, it often is a mirror of real life. It is almost like building and managing a digital presence is as common and important as making decisions on how to present ourselves to the world every day through fashion, words and acts. Connected physical and digital worlds allow people to seek and share information, freely express ideas, find and be found, and develop and maintain relationships virtually anywhere in the world.
Though the positive and negative impacts of intensifying digital lives and hyper-connectivity have already been explored, there are some questionable outcomes that WEF recognizes as implications that may work both ways.
The nature of the digital space empowers it to maintain permanent footprints of one’s presence. It may be seen as a positive implication since it’s an opportunity to save memorable moments and share information and opinions, to save historical data and take it through generations. On the other hand, it leaves no space for a change, no chance to erase personal information that one changed their mind about. Some jurisdictions give people "the right to be forgotten" but others may not provide such an opportunity.
More targeted advertising
Surely a great opportunity for companies, targeted advertising is an outstanding cost and time-saver. Targeted advertising is based on digital data about people. But we have explored prior that data does not always work in favor of certain groups of population and may foster discriminative practices. In that case, where is the golden mean? Digital footprints may unintentionally close new options. Again, it does not leave a chance for a change of tastes when it comes to products. Or it may exclude potentially interested people from receiving a new offering.
More targeted information and news
Just like with targeted advertising, it is certainly great to not be overwhelmed with irrelevant news. But it implicitly shapes opinions, biases and preferences without giving a chance to perceive situations from a different perspective. Targeted news has an enormous power over opinions.
Some professionals believe that algorithms that decide what news and articles a person will see in a customized news feed have a strong impact on political biases. A recent story around Facebook proves the possibility that it is quite a practice. As reported by a range of sources, Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential “trending” news section. The social media giant's staff reportedly prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.
Individual profiling: A permanent identity
Similar to the permanent digital footprint in the form of shared stories, comments, expressed opinions, shared pictures, a digital identity can stick for a lifetime. What happens to that identity if the real person decides to make a drastic change in life incompatible with the previously built identity?
Another important issue here is the absence of anonymity. With accounts on at least five to seven channels, a simple query of a name will reveal everything about a particular person one wants to find. It is important to understand where the limits of privacy are in that case. It has never been harder for people to remain completely anonymous than it is in 2016. And the most interesting part is that even if a person doesn’t share personal information (photo, full name, locations he has been to, etc.), social connections are unstoppable in revealing that person because of tagging.
Ease of developing online social movement (political groups, interest groups, hobbies, terrorist groups)
Finally, it has never been easier to find like-minded people around the world and create digital communities that can even transfer into real life. While the super-connected world seems like a great idea, communities are not always formed for a good cause. Harmful entities now have an opportunity to recruit easily influenced people (young people mostly) and create a very real negative impact.