It may come to a recital of the Miranda warning on waking, if only to remind us that every electronic transaction and interaction can be recorded and saved into perpetuity. If in fact we still have the right to remain silent.
With the cost of data storage falling and the speed of data processing rising, the future promises more data collection and preservation than less. Credit cards, cell phones, transit cards and toll devices, company IDs, and so on, can be made to (i.e. already do) collect and analyze data of virtually any type desired by the issuing agency — for example, place, date and time, duration, frequency, and amount. Over time, the activity of particular human beings can become a positively quantifiable thing. Routines and habits emerge, preferences and prejudices show in crystal clarity, yielding a picture of an individual in his or her private exercise of will. The knowledge of such data itself becomes a tool in the hands of anyone capable of wielding it toward any number of ends.
I am not alone in thinking that this future — which given the pace of technological development seems more probable than not, and in which the lines between one’s multiple public and private identities blur — will force a drastic redefinition of human identity. Or perhaps definition at all. I will have to write more about this another time.
For now, a problem and a possible reponse. First, internet anonymity may no longer be taken for granted, as Ars Technica reports on two researchers “Pulling back the curtain on ‘anonymous’ Twitterers”:
[T]he data isn’t nearly as “anonymous” as those releasing it appear to think it is, and it can easily be cross-referenced to other data sets to expose user identities.
It’s not just about Twitter, either. Twitter was a proof of concept, but the idea extends to any sort of social network: phone call records, healthcare records, academic sociological datasets, etc.
Anonymity is the exact topic of John Dyer’s post, “Internet Anonymity, Like Loin Cloths and AA, Can Be a Means of Grace,” on “Don’t Eat The Fruit.” He muses on the benefits of creating, in effect, online safe zones.
In a similar way, the counseling office and the confession booth introduce “artificial” walls which make us feel safe enough to expose the areas of our life that need healing. Like the protective cloth in a operating room that covers every part of the body except that which needs surgery, these environments provide us a safe place where others can work on what’s broken.
Theological disagreements aside, Dyer’s comments read with uncanny familiarity. I’ve thought about Genesis 3 a lot over the last few years — many of those years overlapping employment in advertising and marketing, an industry ravenous for targeted user data. In specific, I’ve marveled at the serpent, who seems to me the archetypal ad man, calling God on a lie and twisting the truth to his own ends. Having eating the fruit, Adam and Eve covered their bits and hid, as if all of a sudden they knew they were themselves known — intimately known.
It is clear to my mind that we who enjoy such impressive communication technology as the internet makes possible are on the verge of losing the fig leaves we’ve worn since man and woman first covered their nakedness. We will be known in our faults, our lies, our intimate habits, and perhaps even our thoughts. I think we must remember in our technological enthusiasm that, in this headlong rush toward more tech, we’re not running back into the garden, where exposure is not a concern. We’re still banished from paradise, wearing less, and facing thousands of serpents: each dying to know just how to speak to us.
Safe spaces? Without question. On the internet? Probably not.