An Identity Crisis

eyeKnowledge is power and often the most powerful information people possess is their own identity. It is curious then that so many of us are so carelessly willing to give away that prime property.

Identity fraud is the fastest growing crime in the world and it is perhaps no surprise that there is some correlation between the growth of this type of theft and the expansion in the use of social media like Twitter and Facebook.

Nor is it just criminals who are seeking to usurp our identity. Increasingly Government and International Corporations are collecting data on us and repackaging it as a commodity. For instance, did you know that there are two versions of the electoral register? Unless you tick the box to opt-out you will be put on the ‘open’ list and the Government can sell your data to anyone.

Nor is this the only personal data on the privacy battlefield. In the past key organisations such as NHS England have proposed selling personal data on to pharmaceutical companies and any other corporation that wanted it.

They are not the only organisation to try playing this game. Both Government and business insist there are safeguards and argue that more information will help them better serve the citizen-client in future. The danger is that as ever more data is collected on us it will be these faceless bodies that increasingly define and control our identities. Remember that rightly or wrongly this data can describe such things as our financial status and every facet of information they hold becomes a ‘fact’ about us. Furthermore, what is not sensitive today, may well be of critical importance tomorrow.

When my mother’s brother was on his death-bed, he revealed that his maternal grandmother was Jewish. This meant that my mother and her children were also considered Jewish by many people of that faith. This is more than a minor, if interesting, piece of family history. For if the Second World War had taken another course my mother and grandmother would not have lived to see me born. It is a sobering thought, but information and personal records can define ones identity as much any beliefs we have about ourselves.

However, before we are all lost in conspiracy-theory paranoia, the information age brings many benefits and it is here to stay. But just as you would lock your house against burglars, so guard yourself online. When filling out a form or answering a survey, ask yourself who wants to know and to what purposes they could put your data?

Increasingly we live a world where we are defined not by the people we meet but by the websites we sign up to, the social media we use and the information-sharing choices we make.  Once a careless word was just a careless word, now it is information loose in the world that may come back to haunt us. Never has it been truer that information is power. Those who control that information own it and perhaps, unless we take care, seek to own our identities along with it.

Vanishing Words

misty lawnAt a party recently the subject of writing and editing came up. Not only were we enthusiastically told that with the advent of text messaging grammar was becoming redundant, we were also treated to the theory that since worldwide book sales are down then it wouldn’t be long before all the editors would be out of work. Presumably following the same logic, language teachers and journalists would also be out of work too.

Rather than go into a rant, let us dwell for a moment on the romantic notion that the word is inextricably linked to the printed book. It is a lovely idea that conjures up a scene of lemonade in summer and tea on the lawn while Emily and John sit under the old oak tree reading the classics.

The truth is this has never been true. Before the age of the email far more words were committed to paper by pen than have ever been published. The email and text have not challenged the book so much as the old habit of letter writing.

Then as someone who has spent at least half his career writing for digital publications the decline if Paper Age has brought more convenience than problems.
We heard similar predictions when movies first appeared and then again with TV. The truth is book sales grew exponentially during the 20th century as our media age fuelled an almost insatiable demand for the informative and creative word.

All that is happening is that the medium has changed and after the first rush of enthusiasm for self-publishing, it obvious that there is even more need for professional writers and editors. A Kindle does not stifle writing, it unchains it.

We live in an era when a free of printing costs books can be produced for diminishingly small audiences. The growth in specialist business publications is testament to this. In recent years we have worked on projects where 80 page books have been targeted at fewer than 200 people.

Although worldwide book sales have declined, in recent years UK sales have fallen by only a few percentage points. My wife has done her best in this regard, a week never going by when she hasn’t bought a book or six. If one looks at the accompanying growth of Kindle sales then it is surprising that book sales have not declined still further.
The truth is the demand for the published word has never been greater.

It is interesting that our friend at the party seems to suggest that standards in writing, and by extension editing, must fall if one is writing emails and digital books. There is no reason why this should be so and experience does not bear this out.

What is being challenged by increased digitalisation of every kind is the impact on the evolution of language. Also, it is interesting to note that more and more abbreviations have become acceptable in formal texts. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as a wag once said, ‘all change is change,’ perhaps editors must change too.