We’re all hiding behind Gorilla Glass

Performed identity in the age of the digital archive

Time was, I visited your home or apartment, and just by strolling around, scanning bookshelves, CD racks, record crates, etc., I learned so much about you.

Those untidy teetering piles on your bedside or coffee table, the glass cabinets where the VHS tapes arrayed themselves like the spines of so many faux books, they spoke to me. They told me if you were more into cheap, pulpy romance or esoteric exegesis; they taught me to expect free-form jazz over dinner, a funkadelic dessert, or Philip Glass over port. Those glass-fronted cases told me whether I should suggest an after-dinner flick or resort to a reading — or perhaps a few rounds of blackjack.

They told me these things openly. The books boasted from their dust jackets, the records invited a flip through tattered, glossy sleeves. The movies and CDs collaborated on a personal media history.

Time was, this tour ranked first on my agenda whenever I visited a new home. Of course, conversation flowed or went staccato, shutter-stopped, as I embarked on my survey; I had to let you know I didn’t intend to consume you as passive subject. Your bookshelves and CD racks weren’t cold metal slabs in a surgical theater — they were springboards, stages where the various actors of you strutted and engaged, each ready to spark anew a conversational tangent, a segue. But they were there, inviting me to sit back and consume or stroll up to stage center for our dialogue.

And all the while I knew that these were all more or less conscious performances, the products of careful consideration. Like the work of a home stager in reverse, they curated an identity you were comfortable with sharing. The Foucaults and Derridas in the front room might lay like a dental patient’s lead sheet over a body of harlequin romance or paranormal thrillers — but there they were nonethless, inviting questions or cries of, “Oh, I love this one too!”

Time is, today, these masks are cracked, the books have flapped, broken, thready spines and all, away.

To be replaced, surely, but by what? Light-sheened facades of Gorilla Glass; touchscreens offering at best programmatically haptic feedback, marked only by the oily, barely visible whorls of your fingerprints; mute, impassively sleek surfaces betraying nothing at first glance beyond a promise of a wealth of content — and the assurance that this is a wall, a locked gate.

Now I must ask your permission to dive into your music collection, your “e-ink,” your games. You’ve got to lend me the key or unlock the experience for me. And that’s only if I work up the nerve to ask, for the treasure trove of data behind that glass represents far more than collections of media. Between calls and texts sent and received, the permanently open email accounts, and open-access social networks, you’re risking a lot by letting me past that lock screen. We’ve centralized our lives in these little coffins and putting them in another’s hands is a suicide dive, an act of tremendous trust.

Less and less does the self occupy a room or rooms, spaces Google might map; the deictic self has shrunk to slip with ease into a pocket. And what it shows is no longer a personal aesthetic, but a brand relationship, an identity founded upon relation not to the rich history of human creativity but to the international tech industry.

Don’t get me wrong — I love my personal electronic devices as much as the next digital native or emigre. But we can never afford to forget what we lose when we gain. And it might just behoove us to find other ways to externalize ourselves safely.

If you enjoyed this piece, check out The archive of (zombie) you, where I consider how search engines render our identities.

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