Visibility and Invisibility in Both the Digital World and in Our Future Reality

Recently, I read the online comic book The Private Eye by Brian K. Vaughn, which can be accessed here: http://panelsyndicate.com/comics/tpeye. The story takes place in 2076 after the Great Flood – when the Cloud burst and rained down for forty days and forty nights all of its digital contents for all the world to see. Everyone’s private information, ranging from medical and bank records to online search histories, drunk texts, and nude selfies – all online activity available for everyone. Essentially, the network created with the intent of sharing daily triumphs also revealed everyone’s failures.

The first thing I thought of while reading The Private Eye was an article written by one of my professors at UTA, Estee Beck, whose article is “The Invisible Digital Identity: Assemblages in digital networks.” In this article, which can be accessed online, analyzes the visible digital identities (or online personas) for various audiences (friends, employers, family) alongside the invisible digital identities corporations and data broker companies create from online tracking technologies, public records, and user-entered data, i.e. personal details people enter to fill out profiles and accounts on websites. While online, people have the ability to be anyone for different audiences, but such freedom is mitigated by those who surveil our invisible identities and use information about us against us. This surveillance, as well as buying and selling of our information, exceeds beyond just personalized advertisement discussed in Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble.

For some context, Pariser argues in his book, as well as his TedTalk , that though personalized searches are helpful in that they manage the overwhelming amount of information on the internet (“900,000 blog posts, 50 million tweets, 60 million Facebook status updates, and 210 billion e-mails are sent off into the electronic ether every day”), he also stresses the long-term consequences of filtering information differently for each individual. Pariser writes, “Left to their own devices, personalization filters serve up a kind of invisible auto-propaganda, indoctrinating us with out own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown” (Pariser 27). In other words, individuals will never have any incentive to grow or develop intellectually because they will “get stuck in a static, ever-narrowing version of [themselves]” (Pariser 29). This concept mirrors Louis Althusser’s concept of interpellation, except large institutions are not the only ones responsible for projecting ideologies onto individuals; individuals themselves interpellate their own beliefs and ideas when constructing their identity. They never change because they are never presented with information that conflicts with their own interests Soon, we as a society will relegate our decision-making to our digital selves, and creativity will remain stifled. In a way, we are currently creating AIs, and the AIs are ourselves. Our digital identities control how we think and perceive the world around us, turning our human bodies into robots, and soon our digital identities will supersede our “real” identities, becoming the new real.

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Not only are there dangers in how individuals perceive reality because of the digital world to which they are now “locked-in” (Pariser 55), but there is also the danger of assumption that comes with both visible and invisible digital identities as they can be used to make people suspect to crimes they have not committed on the presupposition that they possibly will commit a crime. This is called decisional interference – a term coined by Daniel Solove in his article, “’I’ve Got Nothing to Hide’ and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy.” This type of interference leads to assumptions of people’s character and discrimination. For instance, danah boyd in her online blog article “where ‘nothing to hide’ fails as logic” uses the Boston bombing to explain this:

It didn’t surprise me that the media went hogwild looking for any connection to the suspects. Over and over again, I watched as the media took friendships and song lyrics out of context to try to cast the suspects as devils. By all accounts, it looks as though the brothers are guilty of what they are accused of, but that doesn’t make their friends and other siblings evil or justify the media’s decision to portray the whole lot in such a negative light.

There are other examples, especially in the documentary (available on Netflix), Terms and Conditions May Apply, concerning the issue of government, corporate, and even hacker interference into individual’s personal life. One example from the documentary involves a man from Ireland, a culture entirely different from America, who tweeted that he and his friend were going to “destroy America,” with destroy being the American equivalent of “turn up,” meaning party, but airport security read it differently. In much the same way, Vito Lapinta (also in the documentary), a young boy, made a Facebook post out of concern for the president, but his meaning was instead interpreted as a threat by the FBI, who then visited his school. Further examples are: a writer for Cold Case was thought to have murdered his wife when his internet searches were shown to the public even though it was research for his show; SWAT responded to a man’s joke posted on Facebook; a zombie themed wedding was prevented without warrant or explanation; civilians were arrested for merely thinking about protesting during the royal wedding. These are all examples of the issue surrounding invisibility online, as well as the many masks we were for our varying audiences – ultimately it is misconstrued and poorly interpreted.

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I think The Private Eye captured the eerie futuristic possibility of our current state of online behavior, privacy (or lack thereof), and surveillance. The Internet, which is so culturally ingrained into our society now, especially the concept of different online personas, is all but gone in the future of this comic by Brian K. Vaughn. However, people still maintain the concept of disguises, but with the Internet gone, they must adopt physical disguises in order to hide from the prying eyes of all those around them as their information is now available for all to see. In Vaughn’s future, the visible, as well as invisible, identities and surveillance is brought out from the digital world and into the corporeal world. Hiding from everyone and everywhere at all times will be commonplace in society.

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