THE DIGITAL FOOTPRINT
One of the enduring legacies we will leave is our digital footprint. Will this be a generous gift to the world or a cause for remorse?
Some readers may have seen Wall Street 2, the post-crash sequel to the defining yuppie film of the 80s where Gordon Gekko is released from prison after serving twenty years for insider trading. He is handed his possessions by the prison authorities, which includes a monstrously sized mobile phone, once the height of sophistication but now an absurd period piece. The pace of social change, fuelled by digital development, has been so fast that we forget how far we have come.
We are the first generation of the digital age, being the guinea pigs in a vast, somewhat disorganised but always compelling public experiment. Our new toys enable us to have swift and efficient communication with others but they lack genuine intimacy. Most of us have received emails and texts where we have been unable to interpret the mood of the person sending them and it is an unsettling experience. Digital communication pares down to a minimum the courtesies of meeting someone and we are reduced to using emoticons to demonstrate mood, like the simple and uncomplicated expressions of Thomas the Tank Engine which help toddlers follow the plot. Digital tools can also be used aggressively to bully or intimidate without the cost of having to say it to someone’s face, thus creating something of a coward’s charter. The moral should be clear: if we have something difficult to say to someone we should say it to their face or at the very least over the phone, where voice intonation can be discerned and a fluid conversation sustained.
This lack of intimacy has, paradoxically, been joined to a breathtaking loss of privacy. Social media sites allow all manner of news, gossip, disagreements and complaints to be registered for acquaintances and strangers to share as well as friends. This may offer a compelling forum for otherwise tenuous relationships to develop but dividing lines between public and private have evolved to reflect the complex and multi-layered nature of our personalities. It is natural and advisable to relate differently to family, friends, acquaintances, work colleagues and strangers; if we didn’t, the world would become disorientating, leaving people vulnerable to being hurt through criticism, innuendo and misunderstanding. Yet this may be where we are heading. The fact that our thinking is now routinely recorded in digital form may be some kind of perverse fulfilment of the eschatological promise that what we whisper in private will be shouted from the rooftops. This is not to countenance a withdrawal from the digital world, for it holds great potential for those who use it wisely. Only a few decades ago, the only people who left a legacy in print were those commissioned to write books or about whom books were written. This has changed. The customs and practices of death and bereavement are being rapidly re-written in the digital age, with people using social media sites to adorn the story of the deceased. It is common for mourners at a funeral to be surprised by some aspects of the deceased’s life as presented in the eulogy. In reality we often know only a fraction of someone else’s life because it is made up of many other relationships from which we have been excluded. The embellishment of social media sites around the deceased gives everyone a chance to have their say. There are inherent risks that observations may be made or evidence given which changes the perception of the deceased in unwelcome ways, but on the whole, it allows a subtler and richer story to be told.
Many born in the twenty-first century will have their entire lives filmed and documented online, allowing a narrative to be crafted which will long outlast their heartbeat. One of the enduring legacies Christians will leave is their digital footprint. Not surprisingly, few of us have given much thought to this. We should do what we can to ensure it is an assured, gracious and generous one for future generations to enjoy.
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