Is an Online Presence Mandatory? Part 3: Societal Consequences

Posted on Nov 3, 2016 in Nerdery | No Comments

Since writing about varying opinions on social media and ownership of online content, I’ve been musing about ‘online presence’ as a concept in general. Last night I mentioned to a friend that in 10 years (or less), it’s very likely that some of the basic web development skills we teach at The Iron Yard to help people launch careers in software development will be either an expectation for most knowledge workers’ jobs, automated in some way, or, more likely, a combination of both.

This topic is a complex one without singular answers, but I thought I’d share a few thoughts that have been rolling around in my mind as of late. You can see a list of the posts in the series on this page. Here’s Part 3:

Societal consequences

In the first two posts of this series, I discussed the social and professional consequences of not having an online presence. Beyond our personal and work lives, though, many signs point to an online presence being a part of the way people function in modern society.

This topic is way above my pay grade, so I’ll lean heavily on people who have carefully studied the impact of technology on society.

In a Sunday Book Review in the New York Times, technology critic Evgeny Morozov summarizes the issue in plain language1:

While each of us can still choose not to be on Facebook have a credit history or build a presence online, can we really afford not to do any of those things today? It was acceptable not to have a cellphone when most people didn’t have them; today, when almost everybody does and when our phone habits can even be used to assess whether we qualify for a loan, such acts of refusal border on the impossible.

If that doesn’t get your mental wheels turning, take a moment to imagine going through a typical day without a mobile phone (much less a smartphone!).

I wrote recently about Maciej Cegłowski and his thoughts on the danger of data2. In the middle of the transcript of the talk he gave, he touches on the same topic as Morozov, but with more unsettling examples:

Many of you had to obtain a US visa to attend this conference. The customs service announced yesterday it wants to start asking people for their social media profiles. Imagine trying to attend your next conference without a LinkedIn profile, and explaining to the American authorities why you are so suspiciously off the grid.

The reality is, opting out of surveillance capitalism means opting out of much of modern life.

We’re used to talking about the private and public sector in the real economy, but in the surveillance economy this boundary doesn’t exist.

Closing thoughts

Digital presences, privacy and data are important topics for our time because they impact almost every aspect of our lives, as I hope this short series has shown. We would do well as a society to have a more robust discussion of what future decades look like, but for the moment I’ll settle for attempting to start the conversation with what little audience my own online presence affords me.


1. You can read Evgeny Morozov’s full book review on The New York Times website. Thank you to Michael Sacasas of The Frailest Thing for pointing me towards the quote. You can read the article where I originally read the quote on his website.2. You can read my first article about Maciej Cegłowski and the danger of data here.

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