Thursday , December 14 2017

Nobody Matters: On the Perils and Pleasures of Anonymity

Mai Al-Nakib
Mai Al-Nakib

We’ve all heard the following nugget of contemporary wisdom: “If it’s not online, it never happened.” I post, therefore I am would be the twenty-first century equivalent of Descartes’s proposition. This platitude on digital ubiquity is neither surprising nor, to most, bothersome. It’s part of everyday routine. Some post daily, others by the minute. Some express sincere political concerns by sharing relevant articles or videos. Others “curate” an impeccable image of themselves for all to see. That last element is key. We want everyone to see everything. With each new breach of our privacy settings by one social media network or another, our outrage diminishes. Privacy doesn’t seem to matter anymore. In fact, privacy defeats the whole purpose. In our brave new world, privacy means you don’t exist.

There is no doubt that an online presence can have excellent outcomes. Making the once invisible visible or claiming voice for the previously voiceless is an ethical process that has transformed perspectives and changed social, political, and cultural life at a speed impossible before the Internet. Personalizing suffering and expressing it directly to others halfway across the globe via Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram can make that suffering urgent in a way newspaper articles or television reports seem unable to match. From the Palestinian BDS movement to the Black Lives Matter movement, online visibility provides a high degree of flexibility and mobility. Raw images and personal details about unreported injustice travel via social network conduits, and this information can potentially move to action those far-removed from the fray.

An online presence allows us to share and, especially, to access important discoveries, research, and work from all over the world that we might not be privy to otherwise. We learn about physicians and scientists doing remarkable things that could improve or save lives. We discover obscure international artists, writers, musicians, or comedians, whose work might resonate with us more than that of celebrated cultural figures who garner mainstream media attention. If such individuals did not post, we would not know about them. At the very least, access to interesting research and culture can broaden our often narrow horizons. The early dream of the Internet was of free and open access to information. Although that initial dream has been compromised by government regulations, security concerns, censorship, and commerce, some residue of it remains intact for now, and our online presence multiplies our capacity to retrieve and contribute to it.

So an online presence enables us to post and learn about significant global movements against injustice, cutting-edge medical and scientific discoveries, unfamiliar art and culture—all certainly worthwhile. However, as we well know, for most of us, online activity circles less around the above and more around ourselves. We post our accomplishments online, from the magnificent to the mundane. We post our triumphs and our tragedies. In the name of connecting with others, we post about our children, our pets, our hates, our fears. We post our vacations, our gym visits, our food preferences, our weight loss. We post clever jokes and silly videos, riddles and IQ tests. Some of us post with integrity, others less so. And, needless to say, we post selfies. Selfie after selfie, and then more selfies still. We post as though our very existence depends on it. I post, therefore I am. If I post, it means that, even if I have not contributed to knowledge, the fight against injustice, the advancement of medicine or science, art or culture, I am still important. If I post, even a mere selfie, it means that I am not anonymous in this world. If you can see me online—or if I believe you see me, even if you aren’t actually looking—it means that, at least in my own mind, I am somebody. If I am somebody, then I matter, my life matters.

This belief is both disturbing and dangerous. It is a sorry state of affairs to hinge one’s sense of worth upon so tenuous and fickle a hook as social media. The compulsion to endlessly post about the minutiae of daily life in order to feel alive siphons energy away from other, potentially more gratifying endeavors. A “post or perish” mentality is dangerous because it can push people, especially young people, to extremes to meet whatever arbitrary standards are being imposed by their online peer group. Furthermore it buttresses the self-absorbed, opportunistic worldview motoring our exploitive economic, social, and political structures. In exceptional cases, when ceaseless posting makes individuals rich or elevates their social standing, the menace is compounded. These become the most visible and rewarded models for young people to emulate. When young people grow up, they don’t want to be nurses or social workers or teachers; when they grow up, they want to be Kardashians. In Kuwait, wannabee Kardashians on Instagram make upwards of 20,000 Kuwaiti dinars per month to pose with a purse or to eat a hamburger. Online somebodies are amply rewarded for their efforts with the attention of millions and bucketfuls of cash.

The question I would like to pose here is: does an existence in the physical world not posted about online matter? What if nothing post-worthy is accomplished in a life? What if no great discoveries are made, no award-winning art or culture produced, no photogenic meals cooked or consumed? Does that unaccomplished life matter? When Bowie and Prince died, we posted our sorrow. When thousands of anonymous human beings the world over die, we do not mourn for them. We post relentlessly in order to align ourselves with the Bowies and Princes over and against the anonymous majority we neither know about nor post about. In other words, we post to save ourselves from the perceived horror of an anonymous death. And yet, about a week after Bowie’s death and Prince’s, we had all moved on to the next postable thing. Bowie and Prince are as dead as the anonymous dead, and no posts, no matter their quantity or quality, can revive them. Their music remains, of course, and it is this that will prolong their presence on earth. But what about those of us without the talent of a Bowie or a Prince, without any actual work to sustain our memory in the public domain, those of us who post and post in order to compensate for this perceived lack? Do the rest of us, the nobodies, matter?

A “nobody” is normally understood as a nonentity, a loser, a nothing. To be a nobody is the very status our online existence is hell-bent on overcoming. We all want to be somebody, and in the process of striving so desperately to become somebody online, if not in life, we often disregard the nobodies. However, to claim—contrary to the prevalent ideology of global culture—that a “nobody” matters as much as any aspiring “somebody,” cracks open the possibility that no lives matter more than others. Not white lives more than black lives; not Israeli lives more than Palestinian lives; not French lives more than Lebanese lives; not Kardashian lives more than all other lives combined. Despite all contemporary cultural, political, and social cues that affirm the opposite, I’d like to propose that nobody matters. Nobody is as important as you; that is to say, you are no more important than anybody else. This realization need not trigger panic or despair. To be nobody can involve an alluring range of overlooked pleasures.

Imagine a life lived with less competitiveness. Life online is life compared to others, both less and more capable than ourselves. Whether you are a stay-at-home parent or an aspiring pop star, if you are online, you are competing with every other posting parent or self-proclaimed pop star, and it’s exhausting. So exhausting that after a few hours comparing yourself to others online, you are often left too drained to do the actual work that needs to be done to be a solid parent or successful pop star. It doesn’t matter that you know for certain the image presented by others is constructed, its perfection exaggerated or invented. While it’s true that some are propelled by a sense of competitiveness, for the majority, online competitiveness is toxic and rarely generates productivity. In contrast, to be a nobody is to work without promise of reward or accolade and to want to continue anyway. This is one of the prime pleasures of anonymity: knowing that you are doing the work you do because you can’t do otherwise, because your life does not make sense to you without it. It’s not a competition with anyone, except, maybe, yourself.

Another pleasure of anonymity is slowness. The Internet moves fast, as does the attention span attached to it. Time is money, the capitalist cliché goes. I prefer Einstein’s formulation: time is relative. Fame or celebrity—being somebody—comes and goes, so money must be squeezed out of it as quickly as possible. Anonymity—being nobody—is eternal, and there is nothing there to exploit. In anonymous space, anything can happen in the slowness of time (apart from the usual tricks that generate profit). Slowness provides the space to take unfamiliar ideas into serious consideration and to experiment with new ways of existing in the world. In the slow stream of anonymity, it becomes possible to experience life differently than we do in the fast lane of becoming known, important, appreciated, rewarded. Different does not always mean better, but it could, and a slow pace allows us to find out.

Another pleasure of living anonymously entails living small. The majority of the earth’s population lives small not by choice, but as a result of the exploitive conditions that structure their lives, conditions that are by no means pleasurable. Their exploited lives make possible the lives of those of us in a position to live large or to aspire to live even larger than we already do. Personal online posts often convey an image of the good life, where bigger is always better and the suffering of those upon whom such expansion depends is erased. Travel adventures, grand food and drink, home decor, cars, extravagant parties, and stuff, loads and loads of stuff—all of these flood our visual terrain, encouraging us to strive for more. It’s not always the case that everyone will be pushed in a consumerist direction by what they see; some might feel disgusted enough to downsize and declutter. As long as such moves are not accompanied by endless self-congratulatory posts, it might indicate a shift toward anonymity.

How much do we actually need to live a good life? In Kuwait, living smaller would allow us to live without exploiting non-Kuwaiti residents, domestic labor especially. Living smaller would allow us to live without the xenophobic fear that those who might want to become Kuwaiti citizens (stateless bidoun, long-time residents, refugees) are going to steal away a piece of our precious material pie. It would allow us to recognize that there is more than enough pie to go around if only we consumed less gluttonously than we do. Living with less would mean less reliance on government benefits and salaries, so that public funds could be spent on essentials such as education, healthcare, and sidewalks. Living small might diminish our arrogant sense of entitlement and generate more sense of social responsibility and ethical care.

An added pleasure of living small is the knowledge that you are leaving behind a smaller carbon footprint. For Kuwaitis, living in smaller houses over our favored McMansions would reduce our consumption of electricity and water. This would mean that instead of shifting the burden of our over-consumption unfairly onto the shoulders of non-Kuwaiti residents—as a recently passed law does—we would address the issue head-on and take personal responsibility for our waste. Living with fewer cars in Kuwait would mean less consumption of petrol, less traffic, and less pollution. Given the distressing state of the environment, which Kuwait’s production of oil contributes more than its fair share to, a move toward smaller can only be better.

To live anonymously offline—to be a nobody—allows us to keep secrets.  Much of contemporary life, from televisual pop psychology to state security initiatives, reinforces the notion that secrets are bad. It’s bad for our physical and psychological health to harbor secrets. It’s bad for the state not to know our secrets.  Online, everything is laid bare for friends, nation-states, and businesses to see and to exploit. Apparently we’re fine with that since we continue to do it. We have come to accept that the way forward is a world without secrets and without privacy. As mentioned, few are disturbed by breaches of online privacy; the generation born into this state of exposure seems particularly unconcerned. In Kuwait, recent news that the government will be collecting and storing the DNA of its citizens, residents, and visitors has generated far less outrage, criticism, or dissent than we might have expected. Online openness has, I believe, prepared the conditions for precisely this lack of response to invasive state control. We don’t seem to care about secrets and less still about privacy, even when it comes to jurisdiction over our own genes. Transparency in the name of exposing political and economic corruption has been the upside of less secrecy. However, I would suggest that some secrets—and the privacy required to maintain them—might be worth keeping. In private, secrets can unfold in creative ways contemporary life tends to foreclose. Secrets are singular kernels of surprise and difference that can have far-reaching and transformative effects (though there is no guarantee that they will). Secrets can cultivate curiosity and induce imaginative leaps without which the adventure of life falters or remains stuck in repetitive mode.

To claim that nobody matters is not nihilistic; it is, on the contrary, affirmative. It is a reminder that being nobody—being anonymous—in all its non-competitive, slow, small, secret splendor, might be more valuable than we think. In the homogenizing, consumerist, and exploitive terrain of online activity, it is worth considering that nobody matters as much as you.

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Mai Al-Nakib (maialnakib.com) is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Kuwait University and author of the award-winning short story collection The Hidden Light of Objects.

By Mai Al-Nakib

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