Digital footprints: helping or harming?

Much of the conversation about our online presences (at least as regards our careers) has often focused on the dangers of embarrassing Facebook updates getting back to our employers, or putting off potential future employers. This is a worthwhile conversation to have; it’s important to make sure that our privacy settings are properly calibrated, and that we are not shooting ourselves in the foot by mixing public and private.

However, there are two points I’d like to make about this. The first is that I believe that pretty soon, it won’t matter all that much. Partly because people are becoming more familiar with the technology so as not to say stupid things publicly (danah boyd points out that a lot of online activity among young people is in “code” so as not to alert the wrong people to what they are talking about). But also partly because it will matter less the more public life becomes on the internet. I don’t think there’s much we can do to stop that. Our data is being sold very cheaply indeed by Google and Facebook – a slightly different conversation, but all part and parcel of larger numbers of people knowing what we do without us really being aware of it.

The corollary to that is that I think employers will care much less about what a young person did in their past, and more about the reviews that are posted about their work on various sites. The flip side of this new visibility is that community-built trust systems are developing to make sure that people are doing what they say they do – review systems. Not all are foolproof – Tripadvisor can be “gamed” – but Airbnb is pretty solid.

The second point is that despite the risks, the internet also provides plenty of opportunities to harness its communicative power, and the power to showcase. And that’s a really important point that is left out of the conversation. I think the real way to manage our digital footprint is not so much to police ourselves so very rigidly, but in fact to ensure that there is overall much more positive stuff out there about us than negative.

What are we missing? How can we make ourselves not only more visible in the right ways, but showcase more authentically what we are about – what we care about, what we’re good at, what we would like to contribute to in the future? Once we direct the conversation there, I think we will stop worrying so much about who did what on Saturday night.

Raspberry Pi

RaspberryPi

In 2012, the first Raspberry Pi was released.  For those who haven’t encountered one, the Raspberry Pi is a credit card-sized computer, which you can plug into a monitor or a screen, attach a mouse and keyboard.  Originally invented in the UK, it is designed as a learning tool for young people to learn how to program (not exclusively, though; you can use it for lots of other things.  Someone’s turned one into a retro-gaming console, and someone else has turned one into an FM transmitter).  It’s cheap (the top end ones are about £35) and very portable, though you do need several peripherals to get it working.

This is where it’s important not to go all dystopian or utopian.  It’s great that this bit of tech is cheap and handy to use, but I’m not going to say that this device will end social inequality, because plenty of young people are worried about getting basic Maths and English under their belts before they even think about tinkering with a bit of kit like this.  And the causes of technological inequalities aren’t restricted to cost, and not really anything to do with access to a computer anymore; most households at least have one, even if it’s shared.  The difficulty is a much more complex one.  For a start, how does a young person get inspired to program?  Back in the 80s, computers were pretty basic; someone at home could learn how to program one.  Now they are so complex and the training to use it (apparently) so advanced that working with technology has become a bit of a rareified activity.  So rareified that I wouldn’t be surprised if the very idea of taking the technology apart might be suppressed as a result; the interior workings of mobile phones and computers can remain something of a mystery to many.  So this inspiration is a big part of the questions that surround technological inequality.  Who has access to role models to inspire them to program?  Who lives in areas that might be covered by outreach programmes that promote inexpensive pieces of technology that can be used independently?  I’d guess that cities are much more likely to have vibrant creative programmes because that’s where the main markets are for organisations to promote and sell their products.  But once you get to rural areas and small towns, challenges multiply – self-stereotyping according to gender, for example, and lower participation of women in STEM subjects.  The image of programmers mostly as white middle-class men is hard to get away from.

I will, however, come down on one side of the fence and say that it’s probably a good thing that young people can have access to something like this, so that their interaction with technology isn’t purely unidirectional – so that they don’t simply consume, and instead have the option to participate in creating (Raspberry Pi runs competitions and challenges for young people to stretch their programming wings).  I think it’s good, too, that young people can envision themselves as programmers, so that the idea of programming isn’t a halcyon state of post-graduate career choice, but down-to-earth – something achievable.  Even if not all young people are exposed to it yet, at least the age barrier is starting to be broken down.

I’m going to get one.  I’ll tell you what I think when I’ve played with it, but I’ll tell you this for free: it runs an operating system called “Raspbian”, which apart from being a wonderfully geeky name, is a Linux-based OS.  Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m a Linux nut – not because I have mad programming skillz (I don’t), but because it’s open source, incredibly stable for the most part, and I find Apple’s user interfaces to be difficult and restrictive.   I also grew up slightly after the Commodore 64 and similar machines were available to tinker with and self-teach programming, so I feel I’m of a generation that missed out on the opportunity.

Booting up

This is a blog about technology, career, and the future of work.

We are more connected than we ever have been before; in the UK many of us can now access the internet 24/7 (and we in turn are accessible 24/7). The internet is no longer a separate thing that we log into every day to check our e mails; it is inextricably linked to life.  It mediates how we learn, work, travel, talk to each other, organise (and self-organise), share ideas, and explore.

I will be writing about topics such as the economics of the internet, online power structures, hidden inequalities, future automation, and what all of those things mean for people who are trying to make careers for themselves. I hope to spark discussion; please comment as much as possible, especially if you disagree with me.