Virtually Normal – Our lives lived Digitally

Introduction

Much of the workforce has been moved home by “stay-at-home” mandates by local and national governments.

Long before the pandemic, our definition of normal has been changing. The COVID-19 has been a test-run of what full virtual immersion would be like, at scale. Human history has been a constant progression of new technologies, each marking a new age.

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped reveal the current zeitgeist of our era and illuminated some of the possibilities of our new future.

The pandemic has forced many of us to leverage our available technology, and constrained many of us to adapt and embrace these tools. Now, more than ever, we are thinking about what a digital life would be like. It is a mix of excitement for the possibilities of tomorrow, and angst about will be lost in our transition.

I feel it is important to be intentional, or at least conscious, of digital habits. “What is a normal, healthy, and balanced role for digital tools?” This is a question I ask myself.

Social Media

In simple terms, technology is a tool. The value it delivers is through the function it performs.

It is a reasonable expectation that the tools we build will have positive utility. It is also expected, though not wanted, that bad actors will find the opportunity to use and abuse the same tools.

In the social media space, we discover a market for customer data to be sold in bulk. Data is a highly leveraged asset, and it is what makes Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft the powerhouses they are.

Social Media Influencers are a mainstay in this space; noteworthy for their ability to command the attention of their loyal fan base. Authenticity is what draws engagement, which builds an audience, and creates a new market for products, goods, and services.

An influencer is like a one person company, trimmed to be as direct and raw as possible. This creates intimacy, with the influencer and an unknown (but significant) follower.

Are these public figures advocates for the people? Or, are they arbiters and gatekeepers for success? It is not one or the other. It is both.

The influencer’s success must be substantial, or else they would not garner the attention required to be an influencer. At the same time, as public leaders, they are held accountable for a perception of success. The public forums of the Internet provide a place for constructive feedback to be shared by anyone, from anywhere.

This ability to share feedback is crucial and creates intimacy through a digital medium. This channel should be open, and inclusive. An otherwise nonexistent connection facilitated by the internet. We see the public response when an Influencer figure reacts negatively. Yet, given the opportunity, feedback on YouTube can be infamously harsh, and toxic.

The knee-jerk reaction to toxicity is to delete it. However, we start to see some negative fallout from this. Digital identity has become interwoven with our identity and self-expression in the 21st century, and it is not clear when the line has been crossed.

Where to now?

There are two paths laid forward.

Option 1: We can revert to old patterns, a “simpler time”, and look at it as a problem with people.

For our definition of normal, we would traditionally look to our cultural and traditional heritage, to help orient our values and priorities. There is safety in the consistency, but a quickly changing world culture demands more willingness to change with it.

I believe we will see a sizable portion of the population walk away from modern life. The problems of our modern era are too complicated, and it is better to just start over.

Option 2: We push forward, for the sake of innovation. Can we redefine the technical cyberspace we have built, for a more equitable future?

Humanity’s evolution is not just biological, but social. We should all be looking to progress and mature in every capacity. However, as many mature people learn, we have limits as human individuals. We want to reach our ideals of success, yet we inevitably fail. By holding high unrealistic expectations we seem to lose the ability to make mistakes, which is the ultimate form of authenticity.

I believe that it is a balance. And, we won’t find ourselves on the same side for each problem.

If I were to lean one way or the other? I’d lean towards innovation. Innovation is what brought us here, and has also brought an immense good, which cannot be ignored. If we are to move forward, it must be done in stride. And, specifically, I would lean towards distributed-ledger technologies.

Our culture, and therefore our future, is molded by the data we collect, and our ability to decide and predict effectively. This is where we can hope secure development practices, confidentiality, and data protection are able to prevent abuse. Best practices can ensure only the intended audiences are able to read or consume data.

While the letter of the law is being obeyed, this dynamic is still one-sided.

In order to guarantee data protection, companies are required by law to enforce the utmost privacy. We want to trust businesses to be capable data stewards. Many times, companies use customer data to align their products with their audience. Through the privacy restrictions required to keep customer information and data protected, the customer’s information record is separated from the customer themselves.

Customer information is valuable, yet customer’s themselves are not in the position to leverage it. It is not a discussion of value or not. The problem relates to distribution: How do we distribute our data equitably, and securely?

A promising initiative comes from Sir Tim Berners Lee, the original creator of the World Wide Web. He has formed a group called “Solid”, to help develop an Internet where users can own their identities. This is one of many initiatives to develop a group of technologies related to Web 3.0, the 3rd wave in Web Technologies.

One of the roadblocks to adoption: A centralized company has no use for a distributed system. Their trust is absolute, in themselves. The same with influencers. Their trust in themselves is the same as confidence. With this in mind, why would either party give you insight to their most valuable assets?

The biggest advocate for owning personal data? The person.

We trust our data in the hands of businesses and influences. Like a good parent, they try to steer us in the right direction. Our maturity in the digital era means we need to individualize ourselves. No decision will be the right decision, unless it is an owned decision.

This is the turning point, where digital ownership will take centerstage.

If we let individuals own their data, they can own the decisions surrounding it. And this is a game-changer.

I believe this is exactly the catalyst for distributed ledger technologies to empower customers and digital communities to organize in an authentic, equitable, and secure way. By redefining our technical landscape, we can help users and customers own their digital footprint.

Many of these ideas refer to and build on a series by SogetiLabs called “Digital Happiness.”

Check out the full series here: https://labs.sogeti.com/research-topics/digital-happiness/

Steven Krone

About

Steven is a passionate technology advocate; eager to discover ways to transform businesses and their processes. Guided by a user-centered approach, Steven approaches problems with a desire to understand the essential problems facing customers, businesses, or users of a system. An undergraduate of the University of Texas at Dallas class of 2017, Steven has a solid technical background with a Bachelors in Computer Science. Through his courses he built software using various programming tools, and was able to learn Tensorflow, OpenCV, and Unity. Outside of class, Steven explored Machine Learning in more depth, and participated in Kaggle competitions to learn more about the growing field. Starting with Sogeti in the Summer of 2017, Steven has been focused on work related to Application Development, Cloud Development, and Test Automation. Blockchain became an increasingly popular topic at the beginning of 2018. To keep pace with the trend, Steven learned Ethereum, Smart Contracts, various Blockchains and Cryptocurrencies, and presented a TechNight on the topic, during the Summer of 2018.

More on Steven Krone.

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