Digital Tattoos and Ancient Greeks: Lessons in Online Privacy
What do tattoos, Narcissus and immortality have in common? They're all good metaphors for your everlasting and ever-expanding digital identity.
At least, that's the story according to Juan Enriquez, a researcher in the field of genomics and founder of the Harvard Business School Life Sciences Project.
Enriquez recently spoke to a TED audience in Long Beach, Calif., about the permanent effects of digital sharing on personal privacy. He even offered up some lessons from the ancient Greeks on how today's tech-dependent mortals can control their "digital tattoos."
Just what is a "digital tattoo?" Enriquez compares the imprints we make on social networking sites and other web-based technologies to real-life tattoos, which tend to make a loud impression "without a word."
"What happens if Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, cell phones, GPS, Foursquare, Yelp, Travel Advisor, all these things you deal with every day turn out to be electronic tattoos?" Enriquez asked the TED audience.
"And what if they provide as much information about who and what you are as any tattoo ever would?"
What if, indeed. It's no secret that users of such technologies leave a digital footprint everywhere they go. From cell phones to Google searches, your technological whereabouts are recorded, stashed away on a server and can be as permanent as ink on skin.
And these digital tattoos can't be covered up with long sleeves. In fact, with the advent of facial recognition technologies, your online imprints are becoming ever harder to conceal.
But what are the main effects of this loss of privacy? To answer that question, Enriquez took the classic Andy Warhol quotation, "In the future, everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes," and turned it on its head.
"What if you're only going to be anonymous for 15 minutes?" Enriquez asked. "Well then, because of electronic tattoos, maybe all of you and all of us are very close to immortality, because these tattoos will live far longer than our bodies will."
Enriquez seems to be onto something here. After all, just last month Google introduced the Account Manager tool that lets users control what happens to their data when they die. So the notion that we all need to start thinking about our digital immortality isn't that far-fetched.
Enriquez offers some other ideas on how we can control our digital destinies in this lifetime. He takes these lessons from the ancient Greeks who, as he explains, spent a lot of time thinking about human immortality.
Lesson number one? Sisyphus - the fallen king condemned to rolling the same boulder up a hill for all eternity, only to watch it roll back down again.
"It's a little like your reputation," Enriquez said. "Once you get that electronic tattoo, you're going to be rolling up and down for a long time, so as you go through this stuff, just be careful what you post."
The second lesson we stand to learn from the Greeks? That of Orpheus, who lost the love of his life forever by disobeying the gods and glancing back at her when he was explicitly told not to do so.
"With all this data out here, it might be a good idea not to look too far into the past of those you love," Enriquez said.
And what about Atalanta, the great runner? Enriquez said we have a lot to learn from her defeat by the resourceful Hippomenes, who beat her in a race by distracting her with little golden apples.
"Just remember the purpose as all these little golden apples come and reach you and you want to post about them or tweet about them or send a late-night message," said Enriquez.
If that last one seems a little far-fetched to you, here's a final, relatable lesson from the Greeks. Don't be like Narcissus, who was so enamored with his own Facebook profile picture that he withered away to nothing.