This is our truth, tell us yours
WIth thanks to Emma Evans (@Trancewithme) for suggesting the image.
When I’m dead do you want to know what I looked at on the interweb when I was bored, or distracted, or trying to find the words to remind the people I care about that the future isn’t as bleak as it seems?
It’s tempting to imagine that we are all perfect creatures, meditating on only the things that matter, our gaze so focussed that we cannot see beyond the immediate. The reality is somewhat different.
As a child, my mother used to distract me, during long bus journeys to hospitals and clinics, by getting me to play word games with car number plates. We made up ever more complex rules about when you could or couldn’t add extra letters in. Even now, when I’m driving and trying to concentrate, the game plays in my head. It’s handy when watching Countdown too. To remain focussed, in my professional work, is not a happy accident but the product of training and practice.
However, my unfocussed gaze is not the only reason why you’d want to delete my browser history. My favourite technique at university for making my essays more interesting was a technique I call shelf surfing. I’d find the recommended book on the shelf in the library, then take the book next to it off the shelf and check out the index. If the book was on the list as well, then I’d keep moving along until I found a book that might be relevant, and which wasn’t on the reading list, and I’d speed read that to try and find a line of argument or a quote that would make my essay and its bibliography look different. When you write about sexual politics, about sex work, and about liberty and research on the internet you can imagine where that might lead.
However,there’s also an important principle here. Can you tell what someone thinks by the list of books they’ve read? Can you tell anything about someone by whether they liked or enjoyed something they read?
I’ve tried to read Mein Kampf. It was, frankly, scary, and hard work. So was Ulysses by James Joyce. One of those is a great work of literature. I found the collected works of Lenin much less scary, and even enjoyed some of it, before I realised that Lenin was also a monster. As much as I love Orwell, there’s at least one of his novels that makes me cringe. Would you get any of this detail, this context, from my browser history?
There’s a point to this of course, besides my meandering through the byways of my mind. We live in a surveillance society where the state increasingly is recording and monitoring raw data to provide a reason, or an excuse, for ‘intelligence led’ policing. All too often it makes no more sense than trying to divine what I think about the world from the books I read at university.
Even the prevalent technique of data mining conversations doesn’t reveal as much as its proponents might. Actions speak louder than words. I’d like to be remembered for what I did, not what I said or read. Our police service might like to try the same principle, instead of acting as if Minority Report were a textbook, not a work of fiction.