Now that I’m teaching classes in Digital Culture, it’s made me reflect on how my own approach with technology has changed over the years. So, I thought I’d write a personal essay about it.
Unlike most of my other posts that reflect on a personal topic, this time, I’m not going to start with the past. I wanted to start with how I interact with digital culture, right now. I have several Twitter accounts, several Instagram accounts, and many, many websites. I have one (or more) Facebook accounts – I don’t remember how many. I livestream, I’m exploring TikTok, and I have a multitude of YouTube channels. All that to say, I’m all over the web, and I’m constantly exploring what’s out there.
A cybersecurity professional once told me: if you want to beat them at privacy, don’t hide – overwhelm them with data. And that’s what I’ve done over the years, not on purpose, but because I have changed. My interests have evolved, my knowledge has changed, and my competencies have expanded. Who am I online, today? So many things!
There was a time when I bowed to the pressure that our technologies impose on us. Reply to all comments. Argue with strangers. Have one website for everything. Be private online. Don’t share with people you don’t know. Over the past decade, there have been SO many unwritten rules, and far more new social rules about how to engage online, that I too have succumbed to the peer pressure from time to time.
Something changed in 2018, when I lost the ability to walk for almost a year. My priorities changed. My interaction with technology changed, and how I manage my own accounts, and my digital presence evolved, as well. I became far less concerned with what people thought of me, and more interested in the beauty of sharing – at my own pace. In other words, I came to see the virtual world as just that: virtual. It’s something that I control, for pleasure, for sharing, for communication purposes.
Today, I have Twitter accounts that haven’t been updated in weeks or months. I check my messages only once in a while. I update my websites when I feel like it. Oftentimes, I post and ghost, and that gives me great pleasure. Why? Because you never owe anyone a reply. How you interact with technology is partly determined by you. I say “partly” because there are other factors that make technology independence difficult.
And that, to me, has become the biggest cultural shift we’ve experienced in the last ten years: this obsession with the web. This “always online” culture bothers me. This obsession over online content, who publishes what, who can say what, how it’s allowed to be said, bothers me. Back when I was in school, you weren’t allowed to quote ANY website. It was expected that anything published on the web – because it didn’t have any oversight in place – was just rubbish. Any references for an academic paper had to come from a legit source, and most legit sources were not online. Back then, we understood that anyone could write anything on the web. It seems we’ve lost touch of that.
On the flip side, this loss of oversight has benefited us greatly. As the web expanded, and as Internet access became more widespread, the guardians of knowledge had no choice but to acquiesce to a barrage of new information, and new data. When anyone could write anything, then anyone could also question anything. Did we get history right? Were we holding back some voices? Were we setting up too many artificial barriers for jobs? When anyone could write anything, then anyone could be anything they wanted to be.
I am who I am today because I took that to heart. I became who I wanted to be because early on, I recognized that I didn’t need permission (nor a piece of paper) to prove that I was competent. Forgive me for saying this, but whenever an institution warns against “fakeness” on the Internet, it often prompts me to question their motives. Too often, I have seen authors of certificate programs deride self-made workers, in favour of selling more programs. You see this a lot in the marketing world, and in technology. There are certificates for everything these days.
The question shouldn’t be “who’s the more valid expert”, because these days, there are many different ways to become an expert. Instead, the question should be “how do you prefer to learn”? What’s your timeline for learning? What can you afford? Do you just want a job, or do you want to be exposed to different perspectives? Do you want to just get it over with, or do you want mentors? Because there are some fields that simply do not require formal education to prove one’s competency. And I currently teach in a program that could be replaced by autodidactism.
And the Internet, the Web, and mobile technologies have all allowed us to absolutely thrive on our own. For every article about how horrible Twitter discourse is these days, there’s never an article about how fortunate we are to have the tools to start a new business for free. We don’t talk about how easy it is today for artists to collaborate, to discover new techniques, to find new audiences. We don’t talk at great length about how easy it is now to not get lost in the streets, or to find products online you can afford, or to find a pet sitter at the last minute.
I used to think that digital culture was just an extension of real-world culture, but it’s more than that. It has created a culture of comfort, to the point where we’ve forgotten how hard it was to live without it. Just the other day, I was bitching about having to switch to my work computer to work on a document I had saved locally, instead of saving it through Google Docs (where it’s available on any Internet-connected computer).
I bought a pair of Facebook’s new smart glasses the other day. I’m almost scared to use them. I’ve never been scared of technology before. I’ve always found it exciting. But these things scare me, because I can’t help but think of ways in which they could be abused. Am I growing old? Am I having trouble adapting?
My relationship with digital culture has changed so much over the years, and thankfully, I haven’t found it too hard to keep learning and adapting to how it’s been changing. But, I do wonder what it would take for me to say “nope, this is where I draw the line”. Mass surveillance is already here. You have a camera pointed at you in almost every store you go into, and at almost any street corner in most urban centers. There is little we can do to opt out – and I think that’s what troubles me the most about the future.
As I said earlier, I’ve enjoyed managing my online presence differently these days. I enjoy not updating my networks every day, and not replying to every comment. I enjoy being able to choose when I post a selfie, and which selfie I decide to post is up to me. But, when technology grows so much to the point that I can’t opt out of how it wants me to use it, then I start to disconnect. And that’s actually one of the many reasons why I’m moving to the middle of nowhere next year. I want to be able to use technology, turn it off, and go out in the real world without it tracking my every move.
I consider myself a child of the Internet, one of its first early adopters. My entire career was forged from its flames, my independence carved from its offerings. I’m not sure what I would be today had this digital revolution not happened. And if one were to ask me if I’m proud to share my knowledge of this stuff with others, I would say, “yes”, without hesitation. But it will always come with a caveat: “yes, but YOU will have to decide how you want to use it”. I think that as professionals, it’s our job to let tomorrow’s digital and tech creators know that they have agency over this technology. They can control their relationship to it. I’m against indoctrination of any kind, and as a mentor now, all I can do is offer up my love and passion for what is, and what it could be, and let others decide how they want to use it.