Humans are social beings so when Facebook was born, the idea of connecting with others online was a fun, liberating and socially positive experience. Many balls and chains now come along with using social media that restrict our control and agency. The permanence of our digital identity is a heavy weight we now bear.
Think of young people growing up today. Teens take risks and not everything they do is 100 per cent perfect. That’s part of being human. Yet they must drag around their online history throughout their whole life. Recent research from the University of London shows that young people overwhelmingly want a “grand erasure” of their online footprint to stop childhood mistakes harming their future. This, of course, is not truly possible unless we are given permission to do so. To date, it has not been given.
The claim to our personal data is another abusive situation we are experiencing. A master/slave situation is now occurring where any sign-up now expects that we hand over our personal data and allow it to be manipulated for any purpose they desire.
The damage is far-reaching. I work in the field of education and the collection of big data from students is rife. It is increasingly being used to restrict learning opportunities. Examples from the US show that big data collected in primary school is used to categorise students into AI-deemed suitable learning tracks in high school.
Algorithms, however, are not foolproof. What if data was collected when children were experiencing stressful family situations and not performing at their best? What if they were categorised into Track A but in reality are Track C. Once in a track, the child has no control to take it back.
We don’t merely use technology, we are technology. Much of what we do and think and understand now has a technological dimension. The scales of power are out of kilter. Regaining control and working towards a less harmful and abusive digital life means being more critical of what you sign up to, what you accept as par for the course, and why you use technology. We don’t need to be given permission by the online giants to rethink. We can do it ourselves. Remember, they need us.
Joanne Orlando is an analyst and adviser in digital culture. Twitter: @joanneorlando