The chicest thing,” said fashion designer Phoebe Philo recently, “is when you don’t exist on Google. God, I would love to be that person!”
Philo, creative director of Céline, is not that person. As the London Evening Standard put it: “Unfortunately for the famously publicity-shy London designer – Paris born, Harrow-on-the-Hill raised – who has reinvented the way modern women dress, privacy may well continue to be a luxury.” Nobody who is oxymoronically described as “famously publicity-shy” will ever be unGoogleable. And if you’re not unGoogleable then, if Philo is right, you can never be truly chic, even if you were born in Paris. And if you’re not truly chic, then you might as well die – at least if you’re in fashion.
If she truly wanted to disappear herself from Google, Philo could start by changing her superb name to something less diverting. Prize-winning novelist AM Homes is an outlier in this respect. Google “am homes” and you’re in a world of blah US real estate rather than cutting-edge literature. But then Homes has thought a lot about privacy, having written a play about the most famously private person in recent history, JD Salinger, and had him threaten to sue her as a result.
And Homes isn’t the only one to make herself difficult to detect online.UnGoogleable bands are 10 a penny. The New York-based band !!! (known verbally as “chick chick chick” or “bang bang bang” – apparently “Exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point” proved too verbose for their meagre fanbase) must drive their business manager nuts. As must the band Merchandise, whose name – one might think – is a nominalist satire of commodification by the music industry. Nice work, Brad, Con, John and Rick.
If Philo renamed herself online as Google Maps or @, she might make herself more chic.
Welcome to anonymity chic – the antidote to an online world of exhibitionism. But let’s not go crazy: anonymity may be chic, but it is no business model. For years XXX Porn Site, my confusingly named alt-folk combo, has remained undiscovered. There are several bands called Girls (at least one of them including, confusingly, dudes) and each one has worried – after a period of chic iconoclasm – that such a putatively cool name means no one can find them online.
But still, maybe we should all embrace anonymity, given this week’srevelations that technology giants cooperated in Prism, a top-secret system at the US National Security Agency that collects emails, documents, photos and other material for secret service agents to review. It has also been a week in which Lindsay Mills, girlfriend of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, has posted on her blog (entitled: “Adventures of a world-traveling, pole-dancing super hero” with many photos showing her performing with the Waikiki Acrobatic Troupe) her misery that her fugitive boyfriend has fled to Hong Kong. Only a cynic would suggest that this blog post might help the Waikiki Acrobating Troupe veteran’s career at this – serious face – difficult time. Better the dignity of silent anonymity than using the internet for that.
Furthermore, as social media diminishes us with not just information overload but the 24/7 servitude of liking, friending and status updating, this going under the radar reminds us that we might benefit from withdrawing the labour on which the founders of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have built their billions. “Today our intense cultivation of a singular self is tied up in the drive to constantly produce and update,” argues Geert Lovink, research professor of interactive media at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam and author of Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media. “You have to tweet, be on Facebook, answer emails,” says Lovink. “So the time pressure on people to remain present and keep up their presence is a very heavy load that leads to what some call the psychopathology of online.”
Internet evangelists such as Clay Shirky and Charles Leadbeater hoped for something very different from this pathologised reality. In Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody and Leadbeater’s We-Think, both published in 2008, the nascent social media were to echo the anti-authoritarian, democratising tendencies of the 60s counterculture. Both men revelled in the fact that new web-based social tools helped single mothers looking online for social networks and pro-democracy campaigners in Belarus. Neither sufficiently realised that these tools could just as readily be co-opted by The Man. Or, if you prefer, Mark Zuckerberg.
Not that Zuckerberg is the devil in this story. Social media have changed the way we interact with other people in line with what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote in Liquid Love. For us “liquid moderns”, who have lost faith in the future, cannot commit to relationships and have few kinship ties, Zuckerberg created a new way of belonging, one in which we use our wits to create provisional bonds loose enough to stop suffocation, but tight enough to give a needed sense of security now that the traditional sources of solace (family, career, loving relationships) are less reliable than ever.
As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted, this new sociability was something of a boon. “There is strength in weak ties … Our acquaintances – not our friends – are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world.” But for Gladwell, weak ties like this were no panacea: “The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.”
The dream of online anonymity revives an old romantic hope – that we might disappear ourselves, like Salinger, from an unfeeling world that is doomed to intrude upon and misconstrues our authentic selves in equal measure. Better anonymity than the lie-dream of new sociability. Only in private can we truly be ourselves. Viewed thus, the internet is less a tool than an onerous machine for hype and lies, when all these bands and fashion desginers want is to let their artistic genius express itself silently, anonymously – without numpties sicking up opinions on their oeuvre.
The internet, at worst, disconnects us from ourselves, cutting us off from what really matters in life. It’s an old theme, this notion of industrial and post-industrial society imposing false consciousness on the innocent, and one that is given a new resonance in the information age where the online clamour for attention makes us dream of cancelling our broadband contract and going to live in the woods on berries. Hence, the popularity of Sylvain Tesson’s memoir Consolations of the Forest, about a man who decides to live like a hermit in Siberia for six months. It speaks to our desire to escape civilisation – at least for a while. (Six months is about enough. After that, any sentient being would go postal. After six months we can return, post our pictures on Instagram, change our Facebook status, watch what we recorded on our hard drive and get our agent to sell our memoir.)
This dream of going anonymous overlaps with another paean to social disconnection. In her book Quiet, Susan Cain rails against our excessive and misguided respect for extroverts. Before the industrial revolution, she writes, American self-help books extolled character. Nowadays, personality is venerated. That cult of personality is enabled by social media, where extrovert self-presentation is what gets you friended and followed. The noisome extroverts yucking up their nothingy conversations on buses while the rest of us try to get to grips with early Wittgenstein (why haven’t introverts invented a volume control for extroverts if they are, as Cain suggests, so clever?) have their parallel on Twitter. After Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, which was, in Jon Ronson’s description, “the Female Eunuch for anxious nerds”, we need another book: Unembraceable You: The Pleasures of Disconnecting from an Online World Gone Nuts – a God Delusion for recovering geeks.
But the dream of anonymity is not just about conquering addiction, nor about silencing cyberspace’s extroverts, but also about eluding the tentacles of power before they disappear into your proverbial underpants with malice aforethought. In cyberspace, our every keystroke is monitorable, tradable, if not traded, by corporations and exchangeable, if not exchanged, by security agencies.
This totalitarian vision of how the internet works may seem fanciful, but it was once envisaged as a good thing. In the 1930s, HG Wells wrote of a “world brain” through which “the whole human memory can be … made accessible to every individual”. Today, perhaps we have that world brain, and it is called Google. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance and regulation at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute, sounds an Orwellian note about this: “Quite literally, Google knows more about us than we can remember ourselves.” No wonder some dream of slipping under Google’s radar.
In the 19th century, Jeremy Bentham envisaged a prison called a panopticon in which guards could watch prisoners without them knowing whether they were being watched. In the 20th century, Michel Foucault argued that the model of the panopticon was used more abstractly to exercise control over society. In the 21st century, Mayer-Schönberger argues that the panopticon now extends across time and cyberspace, making us act as if we are watched even if we are not.
In his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Mayer-Schönberger points out that the digital revolution makes it is easier to keep everything – the drunken email you sent your boss, the wacky photo you put on Facebook – rather than go through the palaver of deciding what to consign to oblivion. Though, really, we should do that hard work – this at least was the point of the professor’s book. We must all kick over our traces or face the consequences.
What is most striking about what Phoebe Philo says about the desirability of online anonymity is that she couches it in terms of the fashionista’s holy grail – chic. If she’s right, and I think she may well be, this means we need a revolution in our thinking not just about social media, but about economics.
Ever since Thorsten Veblen wrote The Theory of the Leisured Class in 1899, economic status has been signaled by conspicuous consumption and grandstanding leisure. That’s why you moored your yacht off Rhodes and invited Peter Mandelson and George Osborne over to stay, thus proving that not only were you a Russian billionaire but you knew how to flaunt that status to best effect. Status on social media was demonstrated similarly by conspicuous consumption’s online counterpart: conspicuous presence. Status-seeking cybernauts sought more Twitter followers than Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Barack Obama combined. Zuckerberg facilitated an egalitarian revolution whereby high status could be demonstrated by those without money: social capital, unlike real capital, transcended monetary wealth.
But anonymity chic means we need to rethink economics in light of the collapse of the social networking model of human worth. Anonymity chic confounds the idea that the more overbearing your online presence, the higher your status. Rather, in the new economy of self-presentation, oversupply of yourself reduces your market value. To be chic, by contrast, involves withholding yourself – and in extremis making yourself anonymous, invisible, unavailable to the masses.
Online status didn’t used to be like this. If you were Stephen Fry, you checked into your St Petersburg hotel room and tweeted the view of the Neva before unpacking your toothbrush. You made an investment, surrendering your privacy in return for the status boost of being followed by strangers. Philo reverses this economics: what was once high status became vulgar self-delusion and self-betrayal.
But there is a philosophical paradox in the anonymity chic. If to be chic is to be anonymous, how will anyone know that you’re chic? How can you prove your status while not expressing it? To be chic minimally requires being seen or at least noticed.
Most of those who want anonymity don’t seek to be chic. Rather, they sound like backwoods libertarians – the kind of people who hate government, think taxes are unconscionable, the National Grid Hitlerian, and that with every keystroke you die a little (think: Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation). For example, one of the many anonymous persons who list ways to fly under the radar of online surveillanceexplains how to go about it: “If you are going to be using the internet in your secret lifestyle, you should do everything you can to secure yourself online. This means using PGP (encryption software) when emailing people (and using an email account that can not be traced to you directly), and, most importantly, it means saying nothing online that you would not be prepared to see on the front page of the newspaper.”
If only the woman who gloatingly tweeted that she’d knocked over a cyclist had read it. But it’s also bad advice, since it suggests that there is such a thing as a secret lifestyle, unGoogleable and pure, untarnished by the grubby accommodations of living in society. Geert Lovink thinks such advice is a delusion: “You should not promote anonymity as a solution – then you’re fooling yourself and others. It is always possible for any authority to track you down. There’s no such thing as absolute anonymity.”
What then should we do to resist information overload, cyber slavery, toxic trolling, intolerable corporate and state snooping apart from becoming anonymous? Lovink counsels self-mastery, and learning how to reduce the internet’s impact on our lives. There is, he says, a parallel with other technologies. “We are no longer impressed by vacuum cleaners and refrigerators.” he says. “They don’t foreground themselves so much.” The internet needs to be similarly disenchanted. Perhaps, but that all sounds nebulous – and certainly not as chic as making oneself unGoogleable.