Our Virtual Shadows and Digital Tattoos


By Samuel Greengard

Unfortunately, tuning out and texting during meetings, dinners and other social gatherings is the new normal. Even worse, you can't step behind a steering wheel without encountering texting motorists running red lights and weaving in and out of lanes—sometimes while traveling 70 miles an hour on a freeway.

These days, a lot of people spend more time immersed in the virtual world than in the physical one. Many of these individuals are obsessed with documenting every aspect of their life. What they ate for breakfast winds up as a status line on Facebook; what they're thinking lands as a tweet on Twitter; and what they drank or puffed on Saturday night appears on Pinterest.

A new TED e-book by author Damon Brown, Our Virtual Shadow: Why We Are Obsessed With Documenting Our Lives Online, dives into the topic of our digital lives. "Excessive self-aggrandizing and navel-gazing are not new human traits. We have always waxed poetic about ourselves," he writes.

But personal documents—diaries, letters and more—have morphed into digital posts. "We now need to save our memories on disks, in forums, within the Internet ether," Brown states. "The private has indeed become public."

While each check in, status update, photo, forum post and tweet may seem innocuous, the sum is greater than any of the individual pieces. Brown points out that our "virtual shadow" is rapidly emerging as a representation of ourselves, and it may or may not symbolize who we actually are and how we live our life.

A fun but slightly naughty picture on Facebook might dissuade an HR director from hiring us. An angry post in a news forum may lead to a distorted view of how we think.

Worse, there's no way to lose these digital tattoos and, increasingly, as Brown points out, it's leading us down an odd and disturbing path. He writes: "We're now focused on documenting and building the history of our lives, not on living the life unfolding right in front of us. …  Our virtual shadows are stronger than ever, while our present lives are slowly being killed by a thousand virtual paper cuts."

Is it any wonder that civility and social skills are deteriorating? Fortunately, Brown believes that the pendulum will eventually swing back to a more balanced approach.

Let's hope so. We all need to get a life.