hero image

Are you tattooed … yet?

By Juan Enriquez

Most of you, dear readers, might initially think to answer that question with an emphatic “no.” Tattoos are painful to acquire, pretty permanent and oft an embarrassment in later life. Most parents are adamant: Do Not Get a Tattoo. Period. If you must… then wait a long, long time, and be very careful what you choose. Seems like good advice. So why, then, do most parents allow their kids to get virtually tattooed? Let me explain…
When you use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, LinkedIn or a host of other services, you share parts of yourself. Pictures, activities, thoughts, quotes, tweets, friends, comments – all become breadcrumbs that, collectively, reflect you, your thoughts, interests, activities, talents, achievements, loves, break-ups and lives online. These images and words reflect what you think is important, what you care about. Just like tattoos. So in a sense, these are electronic tattoos, but more intimate and more descriptive than any ink on your skin.
Unless you chose to ink your face or hands, you can easily cover up most tattoos, say if you go to a job interview or choose not to show them on a date. The same is not true for electronic tattoos. Almost impossible to cover up. Removing a real tattoo is painful and messy, but possible. Removing an electronic tattoo is almost impossible. Go online and you can find out a whole lot about almost anyone. In a sense, we are all permanently tattooed. And it takes ever more work to remain even partially anonymous.
Legislating privacy on the extremes is far easier than legislating the everyday. Most privacy debates focus on actions like ‘revenge porn’, where an angry ex posts compromising pictures or videos of a former love. But that is nowhere near as common as the information we and our friends voluntarily share, after an innocent party, site visit, job comment or family interaction. Because this data is so easy to access decades later, and because it is so widely disseminated, there are many who may eventually be amused, insulted, angered, surprised and entertained by the most innocent of electronic tattoos.

Related content

In a sense, we are all celebrities. According to an ex-mayor of London, “When you walk down the streets of London, you are a movie star. You are being filmed by more cameras than you can possibly imagine.” Not surprising, given that there are by some estimates more than a million closed-circuit television cameras watching you. We now live under greater scrutiny than a major Hollywood figure or head of state might have lived under a few decades ago. But whereas it took a team of highly skilled investigative reporters or paparazzi to uncover the lives of the rich and famous of yore, today what we say, to whom, about what and how we looked can be easily scrutinized and shared.
As adults, today’s children and adolescents will be subject to a scrutiny and historical record that we cannot begin to imagine. While most of us were, blessedly, able to forget, reimagine or reinvent part of our early lives, loves, jobs, thoughts, deeds, comments and mistakes, today’s children will be in a very different spot. A single stupid comment can lead to decades of disdain and cyberbullying. A single stupid action can be reviewed by authorities, voters or employers decades later.
For better and worse, each of today’s children has become an individual historical figure, subject to an ever more powerful and permanent panopticon. Even in utero, the details of each individual sometimes begin to become a public tattoo as parents share ultrasounds or even gene-sequence data. Before children hit their early teens and begin to share their own stories, there is already a broad tattoo out there that can define who they are perceived to be: Where do you live? Did your parents divorce? Who are they, anyway? What school did you go to? What did you look like? Played sports? All easy to find.
Hiding may not be a viable option. In a world of ever more prevalent and visible digital tattoos, coming across someone with no profile at all would really make one wonder. So as our kids face challenges we never faced, it is important that we have early conversations about one’s public persona and profiles, about one’s history and long-term reputation. In the same way as parents used to teach kids manners early, kids need to learn the rules and consequences of being electronically tattooed. Turns out we are all tattooed, and we already all carry far more electronic ink on our bodies than the most colorfully decorated biker gangs…
Portrait of Juan Enriquez

Juan Enriquez is the managing director of Excel Venture Management, a fund that invests in entrepreneurial life science companies and big data platforms. He is a global speaker, futurist and best-selling author of books on politics, science and international affairs.

The digital challenges and opportunities facing young people