A lifespan perspective on digital personhood

Charting the Digital Lifespan (CDL) is a two-year project investigating the digital lifespan of UK citizens both now and in a future where Digital Natives (who are currently young adults) will experience three key transition points in the human lifespan: leaving secondary school, becoming a parent, and retiring from work.

Combining social, technical, design, and cultural expertise, the CDL project considers what it means for individuals to ‘live out’ digital lives across the complete human lifespan.

What is Digital Personhood?

We have yet to experience a complete lifespan in the Digital Age, from conception to death in old age. Those who’ve grown up using digital technology are still relatively young, whilst older technology adopters hold paper trails of memories. A person can now have a digital presence before physical birth, as in the case of ultrasound pictures posted to social media, but many of us have digital ‘timelines’ that start in adulthood.

We have yet to fully understand how social media posts from teenage years, reflecting opinions of that time, could shape individuals’ identities in their future professional lives. Our digital traces may persist indefinitely beyond the physical lifespan, and be used in ways that we don’t expect or desire.

At the present time, it is unclear how digital personhood plays out across a lifespan.

What is a lifespan perspective?

In this new EPSRC-funded research project, we use the concept of the ‘Digital Lifespan’ to investigate how digital identities are created and managed across the human lifespan by UK citizens. We want our findings to help raise digital literacy and inform policymaking and legislation on self-representation in the Digital Age.

To achieve this, we’ve come together as an interdisciplinary team to research people and technology, focusing on significant life transitions. In adopting a ‘lifespan perspective’ on digital representation we engage multi-generational research participants: young adults, new parents and retirees. Our purpose is to invite reflection on people’s digital lives as both experienced and ‘envisioned’.

How does CDL answer these questions?

Our research involves talking to people and finding out about their experiences, as well as the design and evaluation of novel technologies for depicting and managing digital representations across the lifespan. We’re generating a rich picture of what the digital lifespan means for our UK population by charting how people live their lives online now and expect to in the near future.