The digital me: past, present and future – a post for #FDOL132

by Phil on September 29, 2013

Currently I am trying to find the time to participate in an open online course on Flexible, Distance and Online Learning – FDOL132. The first task in this course is:

“Reflect on who you are as an individual in the digital age today and your journey so far. Start making links between the digital me in your personal and professional life and start thinking what you would like to get out of FDOL, how and why.”

I could just reflect on the digital footprint that a search on google exposes, but as fascinating as it has been for me to look through those results it is no more the ‘Digital Me’ than any other collection of artifacts one might string together from my life so far.

Reflecting on the notion of ‘Digital Me’ though has conjured something a little different.

I think my being digital began when as a kid (around 8 years old), interested in electrical circuits, I created my own circuit board using domestic household light switches, lamps and sockets. I managed to wire myself to the mains and ever since I have felt like I’ve had some electricity coursing through my veins. It’s a very memorably visceral experience to feel 240 volts at 50Hz hammering through your body!

A few years later while at high school I got my first computer – a Sinclair ZX Spectrum and at some point a subscription to Input magazine – during which time I learnt ways to make electronics do what you wanted it to (first in BASIC then with hexadecimal machine code). It’s curious how computer programming is treated as a science discipline, since for me it’s always felt like art – similar to composing or painting in oil.

When I left school I went to technical college to do a BEng in Electrical & Electronic Engineering. I never finished that, but before I left I had learnt a bit about solid state transistors, circuit design and made some circuits from scratch. This experience has stayed with me to the extent that I have at least some sense of what is going on inside the ‘black boxes’ I use – I still have a sense of the molecular level shunting of electrons around pathways in a circuit.

I’ve spent my whole life in the outdoors and spent many years introducing others to adventures and self discovery in the natural world. I feel a close connection to the natural world and it’s many invisible interactions. As a sailor I learnt to sense the movement of the air around us – a rich swirling milieu of pressure differentials and gases rushing to fill the spaces. There’s a similar experience to be had when white water kayaking, where a dance can be had in the turbulence of the apparently rushing waters. There’s also the sense that the natural world is somehow information manifest. The maths that we use to describe the world somehow being flipped, so rather than maths being a description, it’s more like the natural world is exposing us to the nature of reality through the patterns that form (fibonacci spirals in sunflowers or chaos in weather systems). My father is a photographer and through him I learnt to see light in a more sophisticated way. The way we are only seeing echoes, as the light from the sun gets reflected, refracted, absorbed and diffused – how what we see with our eyes is but a small part of the photons pinging all around us. Indeed, even then it’s just a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum that we can perceive. So I have an expansive sense of how radio waves may too be invisibly interacting with our tangible world around us, out of sight and ordinarily out of mind.

Many years after my first experiences of programming and electric circuits, and having been away from that world for the most part, I took a job running a charity recycling computers. Here again I got the chance to see inside the black box – dismantling, rebuilding and reconfiguring and coaxing PCs – not being surprised when they don’t work (more surprised that they ever do!), but mostly not being intimidated by them. My insight was further developed when I followed that job with a masters in artificial intelligence and got a sense for the soft logic of those black boxes (transistors providing the hard logic).

I guess the story to then was particularly about the personal relationship with the digital. The following decade brought insights to the social side of ‘digital me’. My first job after my masters involved programming – developing bespoke learning technology. Although at that time I was familiar with the web and things like alt-news-groups dating back to the dialup days of fido net, I hadn’t really had a deep social experience online. Joining programmer forums changed all that. Being part of various communities who’s memberships were in the thousands provided me with an essentially new experience of human nature. In those forums was an egalitarian world that seemed to barely exist in most face to face interactions. I’m always reminded of the cartoon that has a dog sitting at its owners computer browsing the internet while telling the dog beside it “on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog“. There was a sense of so many prejudices being denied an opportunity to exist in these forums. The signs that would be consciously or unconsciously picked up on being filtered out via the keyboard (age, gender, skin colour, nationality, dress and all it’s associated signals). A sense that without these prejudices better parts of human nature got the opportunity to be expressed – like cooperation, collaboration and mutual support. What I later came to know as affinity groups (courtesy of Jim Gee) meant people were more focused on common purposes than differences. It has been quite marvelous (literally) to see people give to each other. Be that through OpenSource, Wikipedia or through the broadest sense of OER that includes the multitude of tutorials that people upload to share their expertise and insights, and in the latest manifestation we see in MOOCs. That’s not to say everything is rosy and idyllic – all that is both good and bad in human nature seems unsurprisingly to be manifest online. I often describe the internet as a magnifying lens or amplifier where all that is good and bad in human nature gets expressed (and witnessed) in an intensity we rarely encounter in our face to face interactions. Nevertheless, it seems to me that more often than not the best of us seems to get a better chance to be expressed in the online world than we witness in many of our other more restricted interactions.

In all of that I have described above I hope to have begun to convey my sense of “digital me” such that it does not comprise of things such as the web services I subscribe to, the tools I use or how my presence gets manifest online, but is much more an ethereal sense of touch points in a digital dimension that is much more like the wind in sails, currents in water or unperceived electromagnetic fields. Our devices and the software running on them provide us with windows in to that dimension, a way to contribute to it and those windows are also portals for the threads of connection between each other … and ourselves.

What of the future? I don’t know. All I can imagine just now, is more of the same – with a journey into greater depth, richness and complexity – and perhaps the breaking down of the distinction between face to face and the digital – a widening of those windows, a broadening of the portals and a strengthening of the connective threads.

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