juan_enriquez's picture
Managing Director, Excel Venture Management; Co-author (with Steve Gullans), Evolving Ourselves
Digital Tat ...

"How else can one threaten other than with death? The interesting, the original thing would be to threaten someone with immortality." Jorge Luis Borges' response to the thugs in the Argentine Junta combines guts and fear in equal measure. He did not so much fear torture in this world as much as a life continuously reexamined and reappraised throughout the ages.

We should all heed his warning as we are all rapidly becoming immortal though electronic tattooing. As we all post more and more information on who we are, what we do, like, dislike, think, and say, a big data portrait emerges that gets ever harder to lose, modify, erase. In a big data world we don't just leave breadcrumbs behind, we voluntarily and involuntarily leave giant, detailed pointillist portraits of our everyday.

It used to be only royalty, presidents, mega stars, and superstar athletes who had every aspect of their daily lives followed, analyzed, scrutinized, criticized, dissected. Now ubiquitous cameras, sensors, tolls, RFIDs, credit cards, clicks, friends, and trolls describe, parse, analyze our lives life minute by minute, day by day, month by month. Habits, hatreds, opinions, desires, are recorded and will be visible for a long, long time. What you wore and ate, with whom and where, what you said and did, where you slept…There is more than enough data and inside dirt on almost all of us to enable a weekly Page 6 embarrassment, a People magazine hero profile, and a detailed biography, bitter and sweet.

Few understand how recently the shift to ubiquitous and permanent recording occurred. High definition video was expensive and cumbersome; that is why you do not see hundreds of September 11 real time video on YouTube. Hand held, hi-def movie cameras, ubiquitous and cheap today, were not widely available in 2001. It used to be most of the street cameras were posted and hosted by gated communities, store owners, police or traffic authorities. Not only have these security cameras gotten more and more effective, a single D.C. camera issued 116, 734 tickets in less than two years, but video cameras of all types became almost disposably inexpensive. So cheap, high-def cameras and sensors have spread like bedbugs; we are surrounded by thousands of cameras operated by endless security groups, cabs, home monitors, someone's phone, babysitters, dashboard-mounted car cams, beach boardwalk promoters, surfers, marketers, "citizen" news makers, weather bugs, and dozens of other folks with faint excuses to film permanently. It is not just the filming itself that is the game changer; rather it is the almost negligible cost of archiving. This used to be expensive enough that tape was simply over recorded, after a few minutes or hours. Now all is kept. We now see and know each other in ways previously unimaginable. (Just browse the hundreds of rapidly breeding reality TV channels and millions of YouTube posts.)

Every time we blog, charge, debit, Tweet, Facebook, Google, Amazon, YouTube, LinkIn, Meetup, Foursquare, Yelp, Wikipedia, we leave electronic nuggets, some more visible than others, of who we are, whom we are with, and what we like or are interested in. In a sense, we electronically tattoo ourselves, our preferences, our lives, in a far more comprehensive and nuanced way than any inked skin.

Trivially easy to apply, seemingly innocuous, initially painless, these frequent electronic tattoos are long lasting and someday will portray you as an almost saint or a serious sinner or both. Electronic tattoos are trivially easy to copy, reproduce, spread, store. They will long outlive your body. So in a sense, they begin to fulfill Borges' greatest fear, they begin to make one immortal.

Tattoos are serious commitments. Every parent knows this. Often kids do not. Once inked, a tattoo is a lifelong commitment to a culture, cause, person, passion, hatred, or love. One cannot belong to certain tribes or gangs without a public billboard that promises till death do us part. Sometimes, once inked, there is no hiding and it is hard, if not impossible, to change sides. Whether on a beach, bed, classroom, job, or cell every pair of eyes judges and thinks it knows who you are, what you believe in, whom you play with. Tattoos publicly advertise fidelity, dedication, love, hate, and stupidity. That which, after a few tequilas in Vegas, may have seemed a symbol of never ending romance can become a source of bitter conversations during a future honeymoon. Now multiply that embarrassment, disclosure, past history a thousand fold using electronic tattoos… (Type "high schoolers" into Google and the first four search hints to appear are "making out," "grinding," "in bikinis," and "kissing." Eventually, do you really want to see the detailed video of future grandma without gramps?)

Immortality and radical transparency have consequences. We are at immediate risk of having the world know what we do, what we did, as ever more available for scrutiny from our peers, rivals, bosses, lovers, family, admirers, as well as random strangers. SceneTap cameras let you know, at any given minute, how many people are in dozens of Boston bars, the male female ratio, and average age. This will soon seem quaint. Facial recognition technologies enable you, with a 90%+ accuracy to use a smart phone to identify someone standing behind a bar. Add name recognition and location to your phone and likely you can quickly access a series of details on whether that cute person over there has any criminal convictions, where she lives, what her property is worth, how big a mortgage, Yelp preferences, Google profile, Facebook status, Tweets, reunion notes, criminal records…

These overall records of our lives will be visible, accessible, hard to erase for a long, long time. It is so painless, so easy, cheap and trivial to add yet another digital tat to our already very colorful and data filled electronic skin that we rarely think about what it might meant, teach, say about us in the long term. So we have already covered our bodies, our images, ourselves, in far more detail than even the most tattooed person on the planet.

And even if you acted impeccably, according to today's norms and customs, electronic immortality still presents enormous challenges. Religions, ethics, customs, and likes change. What is currently deemed criminal, wrong, or simply distasteful may be quite different from what successor generations believe is just and correct. Knowing vaguely that great Greek philosophers sexually consorted with young boys is different from having direct access to lurid tapes during history class. Detailed visuals on how the Founding Fathers treated their slaves might seriously affect their credibility. Today's genetics has already uncovered and detailed Thomas Jefferson's peccadilloes. Were today's technologies and detailed histories available a few centuries ago, likely we would have far fewer recognized Saints.

Likely some things we do as a matter of course today will seem barbaric, criminal, or merely rude to classrooms full of future high schoolers trolling through huge databases of lives. On the other hand, many daily acts may seem heroic and valiant sacrifices to perhaps ever more selfish and media aware generations.