The Digital Self

Just as our analog notion of self (flesh and blood) consists of RNA and DNA, our digital sequence—let us call it the “Digital Self”—consists of code. Each day, we are creating massive and permanent data trails that contain essential attributes of encoding, decoding, and expressions of our genes (or self). We do this both consciously and explicitly, and subconsciously and indirectly.

Consider the behaviors that you produce every day, stored permanently in “Digital Land”: you search the web, read ebooks, watch movies, post videos, tweet, list your friends, order food, and complete online transactions. Billions of us have actually submitted our own definition of our Digital Self into various social networking sites (name, address, age, marital status, education, employment, friends, likes, dislikes, political views, etc.). We volunteer this information—willingly! Imagine storing patterns of your behavior—sharing your movements via wearable technology, updates to your medical and bank records, driving information, purchase history, and so on. It is all there, a complete record of your digital RNA, DNA, and behaviors. Permanent, indefatigable, revealed truths, one digital bread crumb at a time, uploaded to the Cloud. Sounds like heaven.

Now feed all this information into a computer, every minute of every day. Run an algorithm against that data, and a digital sequence of you is created. Perhaps multiple sequences are created. You could use a CRISPR and have a super-digital sequence of yourself. Then pump that into an artificial intelligence or learning machine, and suddenly your Digital Self is “alive.”

Science fiction or a revealing truth?

A friend recently received a call from his granddaughter who was in jail. She wasn’t able to ask her parents for help. He was her one call. She needed a $2,500 USD wire transfer to post her bail and get out of jail. He wired the money as instructed, but it turned out that the call was a scam. A bad actor used a digital self of the granddaughter to steal funds using digital payments.

What does this mean for the person, for business, for governments and society?

For the person, if we dismantle the notion of the self, the societal, spiritual, and religious impacts are profound. Your Digital Self lives on, ever collecting knowledge, and is in all places at once. To quote the movie Lucy: “I am everywhere.” We all become Brahma (the creator) and Shiva (the destroyer).

Facebook is buying data to “fill in the profiles” of their almost 2 billion subscribers; rounding out their digital selves without the users’ explicit consent.

For business, the Digital Self will be exploited to deliver better ads, provide better recommendations, drive purchasing decisions, and reduce risk. Consumer businesses will know what you need before you even need it. A perfect and persistent personal assistant.

Governments will be obligated to protect the rights of our Digital Selves. Does the Digital Self become like a corporation, thus serving as a new shareholder in the definition of a Corporate Self?

Ultimately, one has to “opt in” to this new Digital Land, the digerati, and leave the Flat Land, the land of the Luddites. For those who opt out, can they function in society, or are they a new super-culture or subculture?

The British television series Black Mirror features an episode that addresses this notion of a Digital Self being created, captured, and exploited. It is a modern-day Twilight Zone, with sharp undertones of an expectant and emerging reality.

It is so much an emerging reality that it is already happening in Shanghai with the recent release of the app, Honest Shanghai. In an effort to make Shanghai a global city of excellence, the government is using apps like Honest Shanghai to reward residents for their honesty, morality, and integrity. The app aggregates some 3,000 items of personal data collected by the government—creating a digital copy of Shanghai residents—to generate “public credit” scores that range from “very good” to “good” to “bad” (imagine your government rating you). Users with a higher score can reap the benefits in the form of discounts, lower loan rates, better positions in lines, travel discounts, and more—while those with a bad score may have to deal with declined loan applications or inferior seats on planes.

There goes a little honest graft.

We need to harness the transformative aspects of the 4IR to change the world, and obsessively but thoughtfully conquer the perils. This will prove to be a challenge for governments, which I will discuss in my next blog.

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Mark Barrenechea

Mark J. Barrenechea is OpenText's Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technology Officer. A prominent thought leader, he has extensive experience in information technology and his vision is to enable the digital world to help transform organizations.

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