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The future of achievement: digital badges

Grades are so last century. A guide to the credentials that matter now.

If you’re not familiar with the idea of digital badges, you will be. Similar to the Boy Scout merit badges of old, these e-medallions are increasingly being doled out by universities—Purdue and University of California among them—as an alternative to traditional transcripts. Pass a course in, say, statistical physics, and you will be e-mailed a decorative badge packed with flattering information that you can then present to grad schools, prospective employers, and Facebook friends.

Already, people are predicting that an accumulation of badges will one day supplant traditional degrees altogether, and they are creeping into other areas of life, too: The National Association of Manufacturers is said to be working on badges that will recognize excellence in, among other things, welding. It’s only a matter of time before these things are being awarded to accomplished spelunkers, novelists, and politicians.

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The “gamification” of human achievement does have a downside. For one, badges represent an escalation of America’s Merit War; we should brace ourselves for an onslaught of smug tweets when people hit the 1,000 mark. Sure, many of these will be for stuff like Applied Excellence in FarmVille, but that won’t matter: You will look at your own 11-badge collection and feel small. Here, a selection of the kinds of badges that will make us grind our teeth in the years ahead.

The Electrotwiddler

Awarded to the developer of any app with no function beyond making intoxicated people briefly go “Heh” before completely forgetting that they downloaded it. Badge awarded in bronze, silver, or gold, depending on the amount of phone memory consumed.

The Phat Cat

Awarded to bosses of investment bankswhose activities have merely had a “pretty bad” effect on the global economy. Not to be confused with the Fat Cat, given to bankers whose home entertainment systems are worth more than the average house their bank forecloses on.

The Cultured Potato

A limited-edition badge given to people who not only claim to love “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Mad Men,” but who can document actually sitting through every episode, and who have the encyclopedic episode knowledge, gelatinous behinds, and broken marriages to prove it.

The Golden “Nay”

Conferred upon members of Congress who complete a full term without once agreeing to anything proposed to them, be it an 11th-hour plan to haul America back from the brink of economic ruin or the scandalous suggestion that they may want fries with that.

The TechFirster

Given to recognize the consistent acquisition of digital gadgets before anyone else owns them, or even knows what they’re for. With add-on bar for each shrill, 80,000-word blog screed about how the product’s aXichronal compressor isn’t compatible with the STGKL decoding module.

The Dorian Gray

Bestowed upon anyone whose online dating profile picture passes 10 years without being updated with a newer, er, older photo. Holders of this badge generally have at least one related qualification, such as the Nice (Fl)abs, and have demonstrated proficiency in using terms like “seasoned” instead of “half-dead.”

Chris Wright is a writer and editor living in London.
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