This talk was delivered today at Emerson College

The title of this talk is “existing digitally,” and our goal is to prompt you to think more critically about your “data” and your digital identities and about the ways in which all of us increasingly perform our identities, do our work, play our play mediated through new technologies – computers, networks, mobile devices, electronica, digitalia, et cetera.

How does that adverb “digitally” change “existence”? Does it? How does it change what we do now that we do so much with and as “the digital.”

Those of us who are “creatives” find ourselves being told that our work in particular is set to be utterly transformed by new technologies – transformed for better and for worse. This transformation means in part there are so many issues we face now surrounding the distribution, display, security, storage, licensing, funding – control – of our work.

If technologies are shifting our industries – and certainly we’re told they are – then how should we, how must we respond – and respond not in the service of “industry needs” but in the service of our own needs.

What I often fear is that we don’t really know what our needs are – technologically at least. Indeed, I think we’ve shied away from figuring this out, in part because we’ve been convinced that technology is too hard, too complicated. We’ve surrendered too to the notion tech is necessarily intimidating – or conversely to the idea that tech “just works” – and that we needn’t interrogate, let alone master it. It’s “someone else’s job.”

“Someone else’s job” – perhaps, but that job is increasingly encroaching on our own work.

Now we are certainly able to “exist digitally” without knowing how the digital functions. But we might not be able to thrive.

I think the same could be said for the various industries in which, if you’re students here at Emerson, you’re probably poised to work. Film. TV. Music. Journalism. The performing arts. These are all industries that, in order to thrive and not simply exist, you have to understand how “the machine” works as well – and how it works is not just a matter of how the tools work, of course. How “the system” works. (And let’s be honest: If you’re Emerson faculty or staff, we can certainly say the same thing about the necessity of understanding how the industry of higher ed operates.)

One of the challenges of our historical moment is that we’re told that almost every industry is being “disrupted” by technology – “software is eating the world” is how one venture capitalist put it. So technology – this thing that we’ve been told we needn’t or shouldn’t fuss with (just buy. just “click”) – is going to “revolutionize” everything. “Trust us,” I guess this implies, that the tech industry’s version of “revolution” is going to be something we can survive.

Now, in some cases that “disruption” does mean new products, new production, new distribution channels, and the like. And I think it’s fairly easy to cite examples of how this has been a boon to many people who work in creative endeavors. But “disruption” as the tech industry touts it is actually a business school concept – it mostly means shifting power. Shifting power financially, politically as one big industry supposedly undermines another. “Disruption” is also, dare I say, a bullshit smokescreen to make us excited about this changing landscape. We’re supposed to cheer for the Mark Zuckerbergs and Travis Kalanicks of the world, even though, upon closer inspection, we notice that they’re still affluent white guys funded by investment dollars from even more affluent white guys. When Silicon Valley “disrupts” things, power and privilege don’t magically get re-distributed to all of us or even to new groups of people.

That re-distribution of power was, however, part of the original vision of the World Wide Web. We’re still told this tale: that the Web will enable the democratization of “content creation” – that we can all be publishers, filmmakers, musicians, journalists, writers, photographers, stars. And maybe we can be.

We can exist as such. But can we thrive?

I don’t want to fetishize technology here or suggest that a deep understanding of tech itself is the lynchpin, that that’s what is required to thrive. I mean, if we look at the world around us, we can see that late stage capitalism plus technology equals economic precarity for almost all of us.

Now perhaps we creatives are already accustomed or expectant to living as such. But again, I want us to think: how does “the digital” change this? How does it change how we work, how we get paid, how we collaborate and communicate? How does it change who sees our work; how does it change who controls our work?

One of the projects that Kin and I work on – maybe “project” isn’t the right word. I’ll use one that dovetails nicely with his title “API Evangelist”… One of the missions that Kin and I share is to help people think through their use of digital technologies and ascertain how better they can take control of it for themselves. Now some of this does involve poking at the technology itself – learning how it works, recognizing what data and metadata it collects and who it shares that data with. It also involves poking at another, older field of knowledge, The Law – learning how copyright and licensing works, recognizing how it too does not distribute but often concentrates power.

Now much like the common response to technology – I don’t know, I don’t want to know, I just want my [fill-in-the-blank with a piece of hardware or software] to work – we don’t always respond wisely when we’re presented with the legal contracts that accompany the tech we use. There are hundreds of pages in the Terms of Service for your iPhone or iTunes – but do you read them? Hell no you don’t. You just click “I agree” and go along your way, fingers crossed that you haven’t just signed over all rights to the photos you’ve taken or the manuscript you’ve written. Accompanying the Terms of Service is often a Privacy Policy – you are rarely prompted to look at that or to investigate with whom your data is being shared: advertisers, partners, analytics companies, credit agencies, Facebook, Google, the NSA.

“Data” sounds really clinical (to my ears at least), far removed from creativity, so I think it’s worth pointing out that everything we do via digital technology does involve “data.” The photos we take: data. The manuscript we write: data. The film we capture: data. And that data is layered with even more data. Where were you when you snapped the photo: geo-data. How long did it take you to write the manuscript: metadata. How many edits did you make. What kind of computer or camera did you use. What file format is it in. If you choose to use a different kind of computer or camera, can you actually access that manuscript or photo? Or is it in some proprietary format that requires you buy or license software in order to maintain access to your work.

It’s your work. It’s your data.

We need to learn to get better at asking questions so that we retain control over these.

One of the first things that I had to to do when I began freelance writing was to actually read the contracts that I signed. Did I retain copyright? That’s the obvious one. But also, what sorts of legal responsibilities does a contract make me shoulder, if say, I wrote something that prompted a lawsuit. I’m not an expert by any means in contract law. But I’ve had to figure some of this out. Control of my work depends on it.

Actually, one of the very first things that I had to learn to do when I began freelance writing was to figure out how to set up my own website. Kin and I had just started dating, and thanks to his assistance and his insistence, I bought the domain He helped me set up WordPress. A couple of months later, we purchased new domains, and – and the rest, as they say, is history.

I believe pretty strongly that everyone should own their own domain. It is one key way for you to better control your digital identity, particularly as a creative professional. Owning your own domain, having a website – this does not mean that you have to have a “blog.” Not everyone is a writer; not everyone wants to publish in their writing in a reverse chronological order on the Web. I get that. But you should still have your own domain. It can serve as a digital portfolio, showcasing the work you do. It can serve, to a certain extent, as the canonical “you” online. When people search for your name, they find your website – the one you’ve designed, the one you’ve decided what it looks like and what the content holds. They find that “you,” that particular performance of your digital identity. Sure, links to your Facebook profile, your LinkedIn page, your Twitter account, your Instagram account will all show up in the results too. But the top link is your domain.

Your domain. Your space on the Web. A space you can control.

Kin and I (and others, including the folks at University of Mary Washington and at a company called Reclaim Hosting) talk a lot about “reclaiming your domain.” “To reclaim” means to take back – to take back some of the tools, to take back the vision, to take back our content and data from industries that are exploiting us.

To “reclaim your domain” – that word “domain” can mean many things. “Domain” is a territory controlled by a state or government. It also means “home.” It means a space on the Internet, marked by a specific address and controlled by an individual or organization. “Domain” can refer to a specific sphere of knowledge. We say that someone has “domain expertise.”

You all have domain expertise. You’re here in school to hone that.

So it’s key, I’d argue, for you to be able to showcase that digitally on your own terms.

That does require picking up a bit of domain knowledge about how the Web works. But as I said at the beginning of this talk, we can’t really afford to not have some of the basic skills in this. It’s akin to knowing enough contract law to make sure you’re not being screwed over.

Having your own domain doesn’t have to be complicated. Like I said, it doesn’t have to be a blog. Kin and I are going to show you briefly how you can quickly set up a website for any project you’re working on. Think of this as an experiment, a playground in which you pick up the skills that are going to move you towards greater control of your digital existence. Think of it as the first step towards reclaiming your digital work, your digital identities. Think of it as an effort to not just exist but to thrive in a digital world.

Resources on Github

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

Back to Archives