Ethics and impermanence in the digital world

As scholars of any kind, we have a responsibility to our readers, or any end user of our research, to do our best to ensure that what we are putting out into the world is accurate. That means practicing due diligence in our research and avoiding confirmation bias. Even when posting to social media, it is ethically irresponsible to blindly share false propaganda, further promoting misinformation (and, often, hatemongering).

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It is important, for example, to make yourself aware of the limitations of your sources, what their purpose is, and who they are authored and funded by. All of these rules apply, of course, to any type of scholarship – digital or not. However, in the digital world, information is imminently more accessible*, which is, at the same time, a blessing and a curse. We live in the future, where we can visit an archive in London or time travel to [a digital replica] of ancient Greece with just a click of our mouse. But we cannot thoughtlessly trust everything we see there unless we have verified that the source can be trusted.

*A caveat to this idea of accessibility: Not everyone has equal access to digital media. Barriers can include physical impairment, such as sight or hearing, or economic disadvantage. There is also the myth of the digital native – the assumption that “…just because a young person grew up with digital media… they are automatically [technology] savvy.”[1]

Another widely accepted myth when it comes to the digital world is the idea of [im]permanence. For example, my generation and every one after it has been well warned of the dangers of putting the damning evidence of our own lives out on the internet. If you were tagged in a photo of you and your friends doing tequila shots in Rocky Point during Spring Break, then you can forget about the high profile job at that Fortune 500 company. And if you were smoking a joint in that picture, you may as well apply for unemployment right now, because that photo will live on in perpetuity.

But the truth is, the web is not immortal. Servers can shut down, links can break, and hackers gonna hack (hack, hack, hack, hack). This is another way, then, in which our web-based tools can fail us. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on the wealth of digital resources at our disposal and go back to microfiche and mechanical typewriters. We should, however, be diligent about backing up our research and scholarship.

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[1] O’Neil, Megan. “Confronting the Myth of the ‘Digital Native'” The Chronicle of Higher Education. April 21, 2014. Accessed September 10, 2016. http://www.chronicle.com/article/Confronting-the-Myth-of-the/145949/.

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