Do we become what we click?

Stephen Cowling Stephen Cowling
Senior Engineer, Roads – Australia
27 October 2020
6 min read

The Shed at Dulwich was the #1 restaurant in London back in November 2017. It was an appointment-only, generally exclusive and always fully-booked restaurant, according to its TripAdvisor profile. The fact that it was impossible to secure a reservation made it even more attractive and foodies kept calling from far and wide to see if they could be squeezed in. But here's the catch: the restaurant didn't exist.

Freelance writer Oobah Butler's idea of making an imaginary restaurant out of his backyard shed was the prank of the year. In a span of six months, The Shed's fake website, fake yet Instagrammable food photos, and fake reviews, enabled it to become the top-rated restaurant in London, although nobody knew it didn't have a physical presence.

Oobah's experiment presents us with a fascinating yet frightening realisation: almost everything is possible (or can be seemingly true) with the Internet and the line between physical and digital is increasingly blurred.

Where we were once merely attached to our technology, we have now become completely dependent on it in 2020 as our sole means of connection in most cases. For many people, seeing someone in the flesh has become a luxury. We've grown accustomed to each other's pixel personas because we've had to. And we've learned to love them for all their circuitry idiosyncrasies.

In land-rush style, entire offices, schools and communities stormed the web to eke out an online existence. Stakes now firmly planted in digital soil, the question begs: How do the behaviours and actions of our avatars impact the world?

Ripples in the sea of data

Our digital selves are so busy and the consequences of their clicks are so vast that it can easily be described as our third presence.

Like DNA, our digital self consists of code that expresses itself through encoding, decoding and the permanent digital footprint it leaves in cyber cement. It is not 100 per cent identical to our physical selves, but has the power to create a bigger and wider impact than we could ever imagine – especially when used for the good of humanity.

The digital world has never been more important and: We need to put more thought and consideration into the behaviour and actions of our digital selves. We are data and are often at the mercy of the alchemy of algorithms, taking masses of data input and transforming it into conclusions (right or wrong) that construct our worlds and identities.

Wouldn’t it be wise, then, to take a step back and assess the amount, as well as the nature, of the data we feed this ever-hungry beast? If Mozart had his own Instagram account, would he have blazed across the historic scene like the supernova he was, or would he have been a silent drop in the ocean? He started composing at the age of five and produced more than six hundred works. A defining characteristic of genius is indeed prodigious productivity, but I think we will all agree that not all production is genius.

In the tsunami of images that the 3.5 billion active social media users post each day, would the snapshots of Henri Cartier-Bresson or the selfies of Frida Kahlo have made it into the history books, or would they have been lost to us forever? There are so many HD movies on the web today you would need 47 million years to watch them all.

Do we actually have the ability to filter out the extraordinary, or is the world losing out on the input of potential future geniuses because there's something 'amazing' happening every fifteen minutes? How are we contributing to the digital flood and how can we channel the waters in the right direction?

Activism or slacktivism?

Amid a pandemic, racial tension and endless TikTok videos, the ice keeps melting. What other important global events and humanitarian crises are we oblivious to because we can't see the wood for the 2.5 quintillion bytes worth of trees?

While we have a physical body we can move about in, and we are now used to our online presence having a life of its own, there is a third way we interact with the world. How we vote, the things we buy, the causes we support, all of these impact the world in which individuals live.

Our simple actions can be subtle and anonymous, but they sometimes shout the loudest about what we really hold dear. If the values of our three personas don't add up, the dissonance will ultimately catch up with us. That's for sure.

We need to ask ourselves what change we want to effect and then collaborate with our digital twin to bring the desired outcomes to pass through the reach of our actions. Apps like 'Buycott' can help consumers buy products from companies who share their own values and boycott causes that don't. Our money and time make statements and our actions complete them.

You create real change when you vote with your feet in deciding where to work and what projects you or your company take on. Just this one choice can have the biggest impact because it is collective. Get to know the companies you do business with. The people who work at a company are the company – how are their personal values taken into account?

Carefully planned school strikes against climate change were upended by COVID-19 and went online instead. Does this mark a turning point in activism? Online activism, referred to as clicktivism and even 'slacktivism', is often perceived as impulsive, non-committal and easily replicated. Lip service is easy, after all, and the risks and costs of political expression on social media are far lower than protests out on the streets. But actions should always align with values.

In a material world

Our digital selves might have taken on lives of their own, but we still exist even if we don't press enter. The physical objects we create may become even more important as the pull online becomes stronger. The ocean is kept in check by the moon.

Could the 'third place' – community life made possible by infrastructures like churches, playgrounds and malls – inspire our 'third presence' to fully mature? Lockdown and the takeover of our digital selves have started something of a revolution within us – we want to congregate in person.

The pandemic did a wonderful job of throwing light onto the different things that are important for different groups of people. Britain's 40 000 choirs and brass and woodwind players have all been silenced for fear that COVID-19 could spread more readily that way. (Who knew the virus liked Bach?)

However, an ear, nose and throat surgeon with a passion for singing, made work out of proving scientifically whether that is the case or not. He and his team put a lot of effort into preserving what they value.

Many restaurants, pubs and bars forced to close temporarily due to COVID-19 offered virtual food and wine tastings to keep their businesses alive – which is strangely full circle back to Oobah's crazy idea. Indeed, if 2020 has taught us anything, it's the gratitude of resting our fingers and busying our feet when possible to leave a legacy.

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Stephen Cowling
Written by
Stephen Cowling

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