Most days I don’t even leave the house. I have everything I need, and if I need something I haven’t got, with my computer and the internet there are ways to get it without having to face the world. And anyway, if I just sit and think on it long enough, most of the things I think I need are really just things I think I want, and I’ll forget I ever wanted them if I let enough time pass. It’s not like I’m hurting anyone. As long as nobody is there to feel the pain of my created not-wanting, then I can die a thousand times with no result. I can be the perfect secret, an unresolved mystery that does not even feel the pull of the need to be known, as long as I keep myself. I am the victory and the death of the secret, for I am anonymous.
Today in America, the land of the individual, it is easier to be anonymous than at any other time in history since the advent of language and names. Perhaps the emphasis placed on individuality is what makes anonymity so achievable, since individuality and anonymity are really just two slightly different embodiments of personal secrecy. An individual is one who creates a system of identity that is performed to others with the intent that the secrecy within it is deciphered, thus showing firstness in the individual. However, the societal expectation is not that the performance be individual or original at all, but merely that the performance take place. Such phrases as “finding yourself” and “forging an identity” are proof in the language that this requirement exists. Conducting a trace on these phrases, I notice that “finding” assumes a preexisting object of search; even if I don’t know what it is, I am still able to look for something, but since I can’t know what it is until I find it, that means I didn’t create it myself. Instead, this social secret of my identity is not a secret at all, but merely a maturation into and acceptance of roles that existed long before I was able to not-know of them. Similarly, investigation of “forging” reveals that the process of forging involves taking raw materials and creating some kind of recognizable form out of them. I get bonus points if I can manage to disguise my forged self so that I appear original, but only to the point that I remain safely recognizable to others. Anonymity, on the other hand, is making an identity secret and keeping it, even at the cost of losing human interaction.
Gilbert Herdt characterizes society in America as “diffuse market relations and fragmentary contracts,” to which I would add an emerging cult of the computer dominated by carefully regulated identity. The rise of the computer has caused a remarkable shift in the permanence and conceptualization of language and writing, especially as they relate to communication. From Jacques Derrida, writing has historically been “the body and matter external to the spirit, to breath, to speech, and to the logos.” Speech and spoken language were accorded firstness, especially for linguists, and writing was considered a physical representation of speech. Things created on a computer are certainly not spoken language, but are they written, as they are commonly assumed to be? The intangible nature of writing on the computer screen is thus a dangerous state, since a computer is certainly a tangible object, but the depthless space behind the plane of its screen is limitless and impossible to directly experience. If the computer is equated to the telephone, the strange state accorded to writing in the computer becomes apparent. No one would expect a telephone conversation to be retrievable once it had transpired, but it is taken for granted that e-mails, instant messages, and documents created in the space of the computer screen have a degree of permanence, even though it is as impossible for me to touch an e-mail as it is for me to touch a telephone conversation, short of creating a physical form for each of them. Writing in the computer is, like speech, an expression of the thought sound. This aspect of the computer screen makes it possible for a user to disconnect and recreate his social individuality, and to begin to believe that the perfect secret is possible.
I always hated talking to people in person. It just seemed like such an effort and a stupid dance, and eventually you figure out that they’re just another idiot who shops at Wal-Mart and watches NASCAR, and you wish hadn’t ever tried. I don’t ever wish I knew more people. When I talk to people online, it doesn’t mean anything. I can say anything, or be anyone, because it’s not really me. I never thought that I would become anybody by becoming nobody, but I wouldn’t take it back.
Anonymity is superficially the final victory of the secret. To live without human contact or without the social recognition of your existence is to have no danger of exposing your secrets. The cult of the computer removes the vitality of spoken interaction from knowing others, and misdirects from the truths of being by allowing blank stages for any performance of being. This is liberating, but at what cost? The simultaneous death of the secret.
It is a socially expected practice to live a life and create an identity using secrecy, but to live a life not just with secrecy, but in secret, is unacceptable, and for good reason. This reason is partly elaborated in this quote of Adam Seligman: “Without a shared universe of expectations, histories, memories, or affective commitments, no basis of trust can exist.” The anonymous is evil, because it renders trust, individuality, and truths irrelevant. It places all of these into a structure of postponement, putting every meaning-making action into stasis. In most instances in a society using secrecy, the figurative death of secrets is continually sought through revelation and selective acceptance to knowledge, laying secrets bare and thus peacefully or violently to rest. Most importantly, in all instances the secret has fulfilled its purpose, providing a contract through which social knowledge can be enacted. Anonymity bypasses any question of revelation and dooms the secret to extinction through the concealment of all social knowledge. In a totalizing nothingness, anonymity draws walls that are impenetrable not by the skill of their making but in the depth of their apathy.
With the loss of the secret, new meanings cannot be made, knowledge cannot be hierarchized, and commodities lose their values. Life becomes a waking dream state, in which it is impossible to tell whether there was ever any direction or continuity to intelligence. The solution to the problem of increasing anonymity in American urban life is not, then, the revelation of knowledge and the abolishment of secrecy, but rather the celebration and augmentation of secrets. Since there is no one-sided secret short of anonymity, secrets in their social embodiments force people to navigate their realities, instead of hiding in the bilge.
I woke up yesterday and wondered to myself what would happen if I ran outside naked. At first, I felt embarrassed, but then I turned the corner and ran straight into another naked person. We decided to run together. I don’t think I’ll ever stop running.