The public world has broadened. In the late 90s and early 2000s, when the internet was establishing itself as a real and widespread thing, privacy issues were not a huge part of the conversation. If anything, what being anonymous does to a person was the central issue of that time. Now, with the advent of social media and the growing stigma against using handles for day-to-day interactions, we’re increasingly forced into a public realm that wasn’t always public. The internet used to be a place of masks and shadows, although in many ways things were just as complicated then as they are now. But those masks are more often than not getting stripped away, and they have been for a long time. Knowing the full extent of governmental and corporate surveillance and data collection hasn’t changed our browsing habits necessarily, but it has wedged this large block of paranoia into every conversation and every interaction we have online. Once, the internet was a relatively private place. Today, the internet is another public forum full of CCTV cameras where there are no blind spots.
Some people don’t know
how to be in public
they don’t know everyone
is reading their mind
they shove their bag
in my face
to stand in a certain
way a way that’s
out of date
The idea of not knowing how to be in public is disorienting, but it makes sense in light of how radically different the idea of “public” has become. Public was once a shared communal space where everyone is free to come and go, and everyone is consenting to some degree of being seen. Now, public places are everywhere in our homes, and we enter into them whenever we go online regardless of whether or not we consent to this watching. It’s “out of date” to imagine that the world isn’t reading our minds every time we click a link or take too long to scroll through an article. Because of the sheer incredible weight of data being generated every day, corporations and governments can accurately predict behavior and even have begun to tweak certain rules to achieve desired outcomes (see Facebook’s social experimentation). In other words, the public is becoming more and more ubiquitous, and is filled with mind-reading algorithms and design tweaks with the ability to influence our actions.
Even in such a dense and tenuous space, there are ways to resist and even to engage. Max Hjortberg’s poem “Drone Poem” is one example. It consists of 20 discreet-seeming short entries starting with an alphanumeric call number. The first poem, in full:
in the shimmering sun of late afternoon
heat mirage across an empty plain
we knew drone circled overhead
These small entries engage with the drone in very personal and grounded ways. The speaker in “127830” doesn’t so much imagine the swaths of land the drone can record and transmit or even the bombs drones are capable of dropping as it engages with the drone from an intimate perspective. The done is always there above us even when we can’t see it through the heat mirage. These poems are short works about what it’s like to be watched. In “N429GZ,” the speaker says, “drone watches you lie / down in the grass / arms and legs splayed / like an ‘X’.” Our back yards are supposed to be private domains, at least according to the American Dream. Here, though, the drone can peer past our fences no matter how high we build them. “Drone watched you plant / and cultivate with care.” It doesn’t matter what you’re doing back there, it doesn’t matter if you’re gardening or building bombs. The drone is watching from its flighted distance, a constant air-bound speck and a reminder of control. In these poems, the drone is a specter, a ghoul built from metal and plastic.
Being constantly watched means your life becomes a spectacle. Even if nobody is actively viewing, the fact of recording intrinsically alters our nature. It’s the same with atoms when we view them, and it’s the same with governments and cults and football teams. In Cathy Park Hong’s poem “Inside Beyoncé,” the speaker’s dreams are even a part of that acting. She says, “Can you zoom in / I see human-trafficking ships over an ocean / of dead links, no, they’re fish / Your Dream Recall is epic / Then I realize I’m in one too but I don’t care / Is this an ad-free zone / since this old man’s massaging me.” It’s possible in our tech-drenched world to look through the sea for extremely specific ships while simultaneously dreaming about pop-up ads. Maybe not literally, but it’s the idea that all the time we’re in front of something, which variously collects and analyzes our movements that matters. She continues,
——–This is my hometown
I’m giving you a tour of my reverie
——–You’re in my reverie
He used to tickle me with his knuckles, it hurt
———That’s my encrypted memory
as if he didn’t think I knew his thoughts,
but I know, and he knew I knew
———-Stop thinking what I’m thinking
The layers of subjectivity continue on forever, or it’s perspective all the way down. But there remains a sense of something hidden, something obscured and locked away in the encryption, even if the narrator knows it can be still be accessed anyway. Encryption doesn’t work by hiding information but by obscuring it; similarly, it seems as though Cathy Park Hong’s narrator isn’t trying to hide from the surveillance, but is obscuring the self in layers of dream states and irony. Throughout the poem, there is a shifting between the indented lines and the left justified lines that mirrors the quick tugs and pulls of the speaker’s train of thought. It follows a dream-logic, or a mirror-logic, or a surveillance-logic where someone being watched is also watching each watcher and everyone knows what everyone else is thinking. In our actual world, it’s easy enough to achieve: buy large amounts of computational power and hire people with the right skills and you’ll be able to gather so much data that it almost looks like you’re reading people’s minds. Possibly, in order to remain a part of that world, one tactic is to fully embrace it beyond the point of absurdity.
Photographs by Derek Sapienza