Soft, steady taps of fingers against keyboard keys stop just as the hypnotic hum of the heating roars through the air duct beside my desk. The wheels of my chair drag against my bedroom floor as I stand, stretch my arms, sigh, and slump back down before surveying the laptop screen before me.
“Submitted!” comforts the Quercus page open on my Google Chrome browser. “11:53 pm,” informs the bottom right corner of my laptop. “Sunday, January 13, 2019,” announces my laptop when I hover over the aforementioned corner. “Agh,” groans my throat, involuntarily, after realizing that I might enjoy more than five hours of sleep tonight. Unless…
I squint at the bottom right corner of my laptop — 11:54 pm. I peep at my door — closed, by my sister in a huff after I made fun of her for having to wear braces for two years. I pop my headphones out and scrunch my ears — snores and snorts sneak underneath my door and permeate my room. I pop my headphones back in before dragging my mouse to the three dots my Google Chrome window wears like a medal of honour on its top-right shoulder, er, side.
“New Tab?” The pop-up asks me. “New Window?”
“New Incognito Window,” I answer, through a click of my mouse.
“You’ve gone incognito,” informs the bespectacled and hat-clad entity. I count incognito mode as one of my best, nay, my best friend, because unlike my other friends, it doesn’t remember all my embarrassing missteps or mock me for them every chance I get. (I only fell down in a busthat one time, okay?)
“P,” I tell it gingerly. I glance at my closed door. “O,” I continue.
“Portal.utoronto.ca?” incognito mode guesses.
“Potterybarn.com?” incognito mode suggests. “Portuguese water dog?”
I longingly glance at Potterybarn.com, before realizing that I neither have the time nor the budget to click through its catalogue of beautiful furniture that would look even better in my room. Retracing my steps, I hit backspace twice.
“Pi,” I tap out.
“Pinterest.com?” offers incognito mode.
“Pictures of cavities,” I press enter.
Both my siblings are currently smitten, or rather ensnared, by the costly cult that is dentistry. After having made numerous trips to both the dentist and orthodontist, both of them have racked up thousands of dollars divided among braces, cavity-fillings, and other drillings into their teeth that are likely to induce anesthesia addiction. And as happens with most cults — social media influencers, Starbucks Rewards™ members, and student journalists — its members always tell you to join it.
I have no plans to listen to my siblings — I have an expensive education habit that I need to support — but their constant needling, nay, drilling, might have chipped away at both the enamel of my teeth and my confidence in their perfection.
Thus, here I am, googling pictures of cavities near midnight to assuage my fear that the suspicious black mark I have on one of my lower teeth is not a cavity.
Maybe it’s deposits of black pepper from the lime and black pepper chips I often scarf down mid-assignment? Perhaps it’s a tea leaf stuck to my tooth? It could, perchance, also be some of the Oreos that I gobble alongside the lime and black pepper chips. It most certainly is not a cavity. Right?
Even if it is not, however, I cannot let either of my siblings find my browsing history, and by extension, this chink in my armour, so they can use it to cultivate me. (Get it?)
I also do not want a constant barrage of sponsored ads from local dentists and orthodontists while I pin recipes I am never going to make or click through Pottery Barn furniture I am not going to buy. I get enough ads from St. George Dental as it is.
My incognito habits, much to the disappointment of my seventh-grade self who didn’t want to be ‘like other girls,’ are in no way weird.
Whenever anyone, like you, for example, visits a website sans incognito mode, the website stores small text files on your computer to identify you later. These files, misleadingly called cookies, are what allow websites to remember login details, items in carts, and, more insidiously, your behaviour on the website.
Cookies can remember how long you stayed on the website, what items you examined and for how long, and when you last visited the website. Like the protagonist — or antagonist, depending on how you look at it — of the book-turned-Netflix series You, cookies know that you want to be seen, heard,and known. Of course, they oblige.
Though every website can only eat, er, read its own cookies, there exist third-party advertising networks that request the cookies from the hosting website. By having possession of these cookies, these third-party networks can track you and your behaviour across multiple websites to build a profile of you. Companies and businesses can then target ads directly at you if the third-party advertiser decides that your profile fits their demographic.
Google is one of the biggest third-party networks and the biggest search engine, which means Google knows what you want before you even know you want it. Say you visit Potterybarn.com and spend a few minutes looking at a gorgeous Persian rug on sale. Based on your browsing history, Google knows you’re in the market for a rug that you can break down on without worrying about getting your clothes dirty or falling off your bed. So naturally, you’re going to see ads warning you about the selling-out of the gorgeous Persian rug you saw.
Oh, hey, the very ad I just described showed up. Weird.
This doesn’t exclusively apply to Google; shopping websites, as well as content-publishing websites, use algorithms to track your preferences to recommend other products, posts, and pictures they think you will like.
Two ways to avoid getting caught with your hand in the metaphorical cookie jar are to routinely clear your cookies and limit the websites that have access to them, or use incognito mode, which doesn’t save website cookies when you close the window.
I sometimes don’t hang up my freshly laundered clothes for weeks — I actually have a pile sitting on my bed right now — so I’ll let you guess which option I prefer.
I summon incognito mode when I need to log in to my parents’ email account and print out a coupon for them. (Side note: Hudson’s Bay has good deals, I have to admit.)
I make use of incognito mode whenever I visit Urban Dictionary, lest a Google ad suggest I buy a mug emblazoned with the definition of “truffle butter.” (Hint: it is not a baking supply, so Google at your own risk.)
I also always creep on my crushes’ social media accounts on incognito, so my logged-out self does not accidentally fall prey to my baser instincts and like their picture no matter how cute they look. (Disclaimer: they look very cute.)
Apart from targeted advertising however, I admit that I also use incognito mode because I feel a certain degree of shame. In an era of online insecurity, I fear that someday, someone will somehow hack my browsing history, discover that I was googling Ariana Grande’s barbecue grill tattoo, and judge me for having such low-brow tastes in reading material.
Or worse, they could unearth my quest for pictures of cavities, discover that I might have a cavity, and force me to go to the dentist for the first time in ten years. Then where would I be? Cemented in a costly cult and addicted to anesthesia, that’s where.
I do not want to end up there, which is why — despite not deleting my browser cookies — I use incognito mode, as should you. Meanwhile, I will maybe click on this ad for a Persian carpet that’s half off at Pottery Barn and see where that takes me.
There are at least 634 First Nations in Canada, made up of 1.7 million people speaking over 50 distinct languages. What is now called the ‘Greater Toronto Area’ is surrounded by nearly a dozen Indigenous communities, many of which called this region home for millennia before settler arrival.
Verne Ross is from Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan. He co-teaches the 200-level Introduction to Indigenous Studies course at UTSG’s Centre for Indigenous Studies.
The class covers foundational material in Indigenous knowledge, politics, and history, both independent of and in relation to settlers, from the traditional Seven Grandfather Teachings, to the four sacred medicines, to self-determination and governance.
The course is an invaluable learning opportunity for students who may otherwise have little exposure to Indigenous issues in their other courses.
Ross likes to push his students by asking them questions. He asks them to share why they are taking Indigenous Studies — and to consider what they really know of the people who have lived on this land for thousands of years.
“Who are they?”
The University of Toronto, in stark contrast, was founded in 1827. It operates on the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Indigenous students, staff, and community members from across Turtle Island study and work on all three campuses.
Education in Indigenous studies about and alongside Indigenous people is vital to a comprehensive education in Canada, as well as to understanding how the university got to where it is today.
Whose stories we teach
The courses offered at the Centre for Indigenous Studies overlap substantially with other disciplines. If students take other classes while lacking even a basic understanding of who Indigenous people are, they may be in for a jarring experience.
“If you go into Equity Studies, or English, or Anthropology, I guarantee my First Nations people are going to be mentioned in those lectures,” Ross says. “[And] the student is sitting there wondering… ‘Who are they? I didn’t know they were here.’”
“I didn’t know they existed.”
“Reconciliation is hard, and there is more to be done, but I am encouraged by the direction the law school has taken.”
— Daniel Diamond, Beaver Clan, Opaskwayak Cree Nation Law
By offering courses on Indigenous languages and research methodologies, for instance, institutions like the Centre for Indigenous Studies have made a concerted effort to share that knowledge with the university at large.
Indigenous students, professors, and community members from other departments are also often invited to perform land acknowledgements at opening and closing ceremonies, or to share their experiences at panels and conferences.
In many places on campus, though, the attention and respect with which Indigenous content is treated depends on who is teaching.
Annie MacKillican is a third-year student and member of the Mattawa North Bay First Nation. She is double majoring in Indigenous Studies and Political Science.
Despite centring mostly on Canadian politics, her political science instructors have at times completely failed to acknowledge the impact of Indigenous people on the political landscape.
“It’s frustrating, because it kind of reinforces the idea that Indigenous people are not relevant or present in today’s society,” MacKillican says.
Samantha Giguere, in her second year studying Archaeology and Indigenous Studies, holds similar views. She is Ojibwe from the Thessalon First Nation in Northern Ontario.
“The Indigenous view on history is typically brushed over in archeology classes, with just a quick mention that Indigenous people believe they have been in the Americas for a much longer time than proven through archaeological research,” Giguere says.
Other Indigenous students have had more positive experiences. Daniel Diamond is from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba, a member of the Beaver Clan, and a first-year student in the Faculty of Law.
In Diamond’s opinion, the faculty has demonstrated an encouraging effort to incorporate Indigenous issues into its legal education plan. All first-year students are required to attend a half-day Introduction to Aboriginal Law course before beginning full-time studies in September, and the blanket exercise — a teaching method that tells the story of Canada’s Indigenous people — is incorporated into the faculty’s orientation week.
Some of Diamond’s professors have also highlighted Indigenous perspectives within the black-letter-law courses that make up the mandatory curriculum. His criminal law professor, Kent Roach, for example, focused much of his class on Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi’kmaq man wrongfully convicted of murder in Nova Scotia, who served 11 years in prison before he was finally exonerated.
Marshall Jr.’s case is one of the most famous wrongful conviction cases in Canadian history. It is also a black mark on Canada’s criminal justice system — a landmark example of how anti-Indigenous prejudice at all stages of the process can culminate in carceral violence and injustice.
The university is in a position to promote a more honest and meaningful inclusion of Indigenous people and voices, and arguably has a responsibility to do so.
“Being an educational institution, they have the unique ability to change how people receive information about the country they live and study in,” MacKillican says.
Control over narratives
For many non-Indigenous students, university is their first opportunity to come into contact with Indigenous teachings — or even with Indigenous people.
Ross recounts the many preconceived notions that students have brought into his classroom.
“Is it true that Native people all live on reserves?” (No. Indigenous people live all across Canada, on reserve and off reserve.)
“Is it true that Native people get free education?” (Not really. ‘Status Indians,’ people recognized by the federal government as such under the Indian Act, may receive federal funding for postsecondary education. But funding is in limited supply and contingent on strict requirements. Many students, if they receive funding at all, do not receive enough to cover their costs.)
“Is it true that Native people don’t pay taxes?” (Not exactly. Indigenous people living off reserve pay taxes like any other resident. Certain property on reserve lands is subject to tax exemptions; conversely, prohibitions on tax collection have severely constrained the ability of Band Councils to raise revenue for public services in their communities.)
Where stereotypes arise, instead of scolding, Ross tries to challenge them in constructive ways.
“We want to be able to show them, but not to tell them,” he explains.
Regrettably, educators may also perpetuate ignorance or misinformation about Indigenous people.
One of MacKillican’s professors refused to use the appropriate terminology when referring to Indigenous people. According to MacKillican, the professor claimed “that it would have no impact on the lives of Indigenous people if he called them ‘Indians.’”
The labels ‘Indian’ and ‘Aboriginal’ are fictions of Western law. Rooted in settler misunderstanding and othering, they can be pejorative when used outside of their specific legal context, though some Indigenous people in Canada and elsewhere have adopted variations of these terms. The word ‘Indigenous’ is usually preferred when speaking about Canada’s First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people — to avoid homogenizing, the names of specific nations should be used.
Respecting the right of Indigenous people to be acknowledged in the way that they want can be fundamental to acknowledging their presence and power of identity.
Ziigwen Mixemong, a student in Indigenous Studies and Women & Gender Studies, is Mi’kmaq and Potawatomi, from Beausoleil First Nation on Georgian Bay. She grew up in a small town, where for years, she was the only person of colour at her school.
In Mixemong’s culture, babies aren’t always named right at birth. Though the name on her birth certificate is “Bailey,” she received her Indigenous spirit name, “Ziigwen,” at her traditional naming ceremony as a toddler.
Yet, despite her repeated requests, her elementary and secondary schools refused to let her go by “Ziigwen.” Though today, Mixemong holds no animosity toward the name “Bailey,” coming to U of T was in part an opportunity to reclaim her Indigenous spirit name.
“The fact that I was not allowed to go by Ziigwen for so long makes me very protective of my right to be called what I want,” Mixemong says.
Threads of solidarity
Many Indigenous students are some of the first in their families to attend university, but may have limited support available to finance their educations, and face additional obstacles if they live on reserve or in fly-in communities.
Intergenerational impacts of colonialism — such as strains on family, lifelong experiences of racism, and barriers to embracing their cultures and languages — do not disappear once Indigenous students come to U of T.
“By the time you come to face the obstacles that are associated with university,” Giguere says, “some Indigenous youth have already climbed more mountains than some people will have to climb in their entire lives.”
A number of centres and organizations at the university continually strive to provide Indigenous students with additional support.
The First Nations House offers culturally sensitive services and programming, including academic advising, scholarships, and access to elders and teachers in residence.
Student organizations such as the Native Students’ Association (NSA) and the Indigenous Law Students’ Association (ILSA) host feasts, social gatherings, and educational events to engage with and promote the Indigenous presence on campus. The Indigenous Studies Students’ Union is hosting its third annual Honouring Our Students Pow Wow this spring.
Yet continual brushes with anti-Indigeneity can foster unpleasant or troubling experiences for Indigenous students, from course content that ignores Indigenous perspectives to insensitive comments from professors and peers.
Visible markers of colonialism across campus — such as buildings and monuments that honour colonial heroes — also play a role. Students at Victoria College have launched a campaign to rename both the residence and stream of the first-year Vic One program named after Egerton Ryerson, who played a key role in the design of the residential school system.
Mixemong’s encounters with anti-Indigeneity, misinformation, and neglect of Indigenous perspectives have at times severely impacted her learning. The comments made in her classes about her people have moved her to tears, and the toll this eventually took on her mental health has at times led her to step back from her studies.
“In my experience, even classes that are seemingly safe spaces can tokenize Indigenous voices or silence them altogether,” Mixemong says.
The need for truth
Under the banner of ‘reconciliation,’ universities across Canada have implemented a wide range of initiatives designed to raise awareness of Indigenous issues. ‘Reconciliation’ is spoken about in schools, in politics, and on social media feeds.
We might consider framing our approach differently.
“There is an assumption, if you say reconciliation, that there was a good relationship to start,” Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo says. “In some cases, the relationship component was never there.”
Hamilton-Diabo is of the Mohawk nation and Director of Indigenous Initiatives at U of T. He co-chaired the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) steering committee at the university. In 2017, a team of Indigenous students, faculty, staff, and community members produced a report detailing the university’s plan to implement the calls to action from the TRC.
Among others, the committee’s recommendations included recruitment of and support for Indigenous students and employees, increased Indigenous alumni engagement, and mindfulness of Indigenous issues in university curricula and programming.
As Hamilton-Diabo points out, to even begin to “reconcile,” we need to know the truth.
The Canadian TRC was modelled after the restorative justice body of the same name set up in post-apartheid South Africa. The South African TRC invested innumerable resources into documenting the horrors of the apartheid regime, even taking the controversial step of offering amnesty to officials who agreed to confess.
The sheer number of volumes and records that came out of that initiative was designed to ensure that no one in South Africa, or around the world, would ever forget what took place there.
Canada isn’t quite there yet.
Ross has invited survivors of the residential school system to serve as guest speakers in his classes. Students’ reactions are palpable. Many are disbelieving at first — shocked that forcing children from their communities and brutally attempting to assimilate them into Western culture was, not so long ago, part of official Canadian policy.
Though questions are encouraged, Ross says, many students just sit and listen.
“I think the students are silent that way because they’re actually hearing the realities of what took place,” he explains.
“They’re learning about who are First Nations people.”
In light of that past, Mixemong feels that U of T and all of its settler students have a tremendous responsibility to Indigenous students at the university.
“We have inherited a horrific history,” Mixemong says, “and it is everyone’s responsibility to learn and grow from that.”
At the same time, Hamilton-Diabo acknowledges that it is inappropriate to see Indigenous communities just through lenses like the residential schools system. Painting Indigenous people as victims overshadows their resilience, and ignores their contributions to history as well as to present and future societies.
Conversely, learning about Indigenous people, as settlers in or immigrants to this country, also requires students to be honest about how they fit into the picture.
Ross tells me that students often come to him claiming to be Indigenous. Mindful of diversity across nations, he is always careful in his response. Some students have rumours of Indigeneity in their families, or their relatives may even have discouraged them from pursuing their lineage.
But Ross also recognizes that some students who take his course or come to the centre do not necessarily have the best intentions. Some, he says, are actually searching for a new sense of identity.
“‘I’m not proud to be white.’ ‘I don’t want to be white.’”
“‘I want to be Native.’”
Every Indigenous person has a unique past, present, and future. Indigeneity is not a label that one can adopt and shed at will. And appropriation, Ross tells me, is not the way to build relationships.
“We welcome people into our communities, but we can’t change who you are.”
“Intergenerational trauma is real and it lies within the walls of this institution.”
— Ziigwen Mixemong, Mikmaq and Potawatomi, Beausoleil First Nation
Women and Gender Studies & Indigenous Studies
Toward better relations
Hamilton-Diabo is confident that U of T is paying attention to Indigenous people. The challenge is how to do so effectively — within an institution this size and across three campuses, where various departments have more or less experience with Indigenous issues, and where roadblocks to retaining Indigenous students and faculty exist at all levels.
Diamond is encouraged by the law school’s efforts to incorporate Indigenous perspectives within the standard black-letter law classes required of all first-year students.
“I think, in an ideal world, I would like to see more of the same,” Diamond says. “A continued and concerted effort to engage with Indigenous issues within the framework of the classes already being taught.”
MacKillican, too, would like to see increased focus on Indigenous people in departments and courses outside of the Centre for Indigenous Studies. Mixemong’s suggestions include increasing funding for Indigenous student resources, and thorough consultation to establish what they really need and want.
Giguere believes that archaeology programs across Canada should implement a mandatory Indigenous course requirement. The NSA has in the past lobbied for a mandatory Indigenous course requirement to be incorporated into all degrees at the university.
But Ross is skeptical about mandating any kind of learning or participation. He cautions that while the centre encourages students who are interested to get involved, in his opinion, this should be done without forcing anyone to learn.
“We can’t force our ways on other nations that are coming to university,” Ross says. Settlers forced their ways on Indigenous people, he explains, by banning traditional ceremonies like sundances and potlatches and refusing to let people speak their languages. The damage of those dynamics continues to this day.
“That’s not who we are.”
As the largest university in Canada, U of T occupies a special role in this learning process. The university has the opportunity to foster a thorough understanding of the impact of colonial and oppressive policies on Indigenous people within its existing student and faculty communities.
It is also in a position to engage Indigenous people at all stages of this process, to the extent that they are interested in getting involved.
“It is no longer an acceptable practice to move ahead without Indigenous people involved,” Hamilton-Diabo says. “The lack of Indigenous people is no longer a valid excuse to say, ‘We’ll do it anyhow.’”
Educating future generations includes repairing existing relations — and building new ones for the present and future.
“Whether your people came here willingly, forcibly, historically, or recently, you are here now,” Mixemong says.
For every piece of mass-distributed media, whether that be a blockbuster movie, AAA video game, or hit album, there are countless other lesser-known and poorly distributed works of art potentially at risk of extinction. Often, these works were created by independent parties or companies — free of the influence of their era’s mainstream capitalist values — but were distributed in smaller numbers, consumed only by niche audiences. As the memory of these works eventually fades from public consciousness, the remaining, physical copies of the material do as well.
Many of the original authors or developers in question are already deceased. In an ideal world, any corporations that still own their respective intellectual properties would reissue the old material, providing income for the author or their estate and a legitimate means of obtaining the work, but this is often not the case. The corporations and private collectors gatekeeping these properties cannot always be trusted to disseminate their materials. The job has thus fallen on the public, through internet archives.
The ongoing history of internet archives is one filled with broken laws, greed, elitism, and plenty of ethical and legal ambiguity. I will be focusing primarily on the hurdles and advances made in regards to cinema, video game, and music archives, but there are separate communities working to protect classic works of photography, visual art, and literature.
For most fans of vintage video games, their first stop down memory lane was likely playing one of the hundreds of video game ROMs available online. These are digital files containing the read-only memory (ROM) data from a video game. With the proper emulation program, these ROMs could be executed on your home computer, allowing you to freely play a copy of Super Mario Bros. as you might have back in the 1990s.
That is, until around November last year, when Nintendo sued two of the internet’s biggest ROM-hosting sites, LoveROMS.com and LoveRETRO.co, for $12.2 million USD, resulting in the sites removing all of their ROMs — not just their Nintendo ones. While some of these ROMs are still obtainable elsewhere online, this was a huge move on Nintendo’s part in order to secure the success of future ports for many of these titles, either in the form of the NES and SNES Classic consoles, or a future, online marketplace. Nintendo has a vintage game marketplace called the Virtual Console, though it is currently not available on Nintendo’s latest console, the Nintendo Switch.
In a 2016 conversation with Kotaku, Jason Scott, who works with archive.org for the Internet Arcade said: “I have zero faith in the industry to preserve its own history.”
This is a sad reality that many fans of the medium have come to realize as the years go by. Nevertheless, Scott works to create “a web-based library of arcade (coin-operated) video games from the 1970s through to the 1990s,” where emulated versions of these are available to play, for free, right in your browser. Another particularly noble and important project is the Video Game History Foundation, a non-profit organization started in 2017 that is devoted to obtaining and digitally preserving not only old video games and their emulatable ROMs, but also promotional materials and artwork relevant to gaming history. The foundation currently works off of one-time donations and a Patreon page.
Besides free internet archives, there are also boutique film and music publishers like video company Criterion Collection or record label Light In The Attic. They’vetaken on the task of obtaining the rights to cult classics and relatively unknown, foreign, or experimental films and music, reissuing them in a premium package for retail consumption. On April 8, the Criterion Collection will release to the publicthe Criterion Channel, a monthly subscription-based streaming service that provides access to the Criterion Collection’s vault of films to watch online.
As it cannot always be guaranteed that a record label, production company, or games publisher has even maintained their master tapes and other original material in ideal conditions — or that they even have the intention of re-releasing these less financially lucrative works — it often falls in the hands of the public to make sure these lesser-known gems are uploaded before they disappear for good. While physical institutions whose job is to preserve historical works of art and culture do exist, these bourgeois institutions are not without their faults.
Ideal storage facilities often exist only in institutions like the Library of Congress or postsecondary school libraries such as UTSG’s Media Commons or Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. These institutions often have access to material the public does not. Vintage films are one of the most difficult materials for just anyone to digitize and release online, as the owners of the original film reels are often the filmmakers — or their estates. Take, for instance, the Harvard Film Archives, which, after the death of influential experimental filmmaker Anne Charlotte Robertson, obtained all of her film reels and miscellaneous work, as well as the intellectual and distribution rights to the material per the conditions of her will. The organization has been digitizing and archiving all of her work in 16mm film reels and digital forms.
Acknowledging the ephemerality of physical media, the Library of Congress has even begun to archive its materials on centralized servers, as the secure, well-maintained containers holding their archives of thousands of CDs are beginning to show wear. Understandably, some postsecondary institutions only offer their materials to staff and students, and only employees and government officials can actually check out materials from the Library of Congress. This is why the maintenance of public, online databases devoted to archiving materials related to — or entire works of — older media is so vital.
Furthermore, while collectors are invaluable resources and contributors of rare and limited materials, these same collectors can often become part of the problem, acting as gatekeepers of arts and culture in order to deepen their pockets. Back in August, over 67 gigabytes worth of rare, lost Japanese video games were anonymously leaked online, including a title once thought to never have been completed and released: Zeddas: Horror Tour 3 / Labyrinthe,the sequel to a Japan-only PC game from the 1990s. Originally available only through a private torrenting site, one user went ahead and publicly uploaded over 70 games online, against the wishes of the uploader.
This action was immediately followed by the uploader threatening to cease contributing to the site, likely motivated by a fear that once these games became publicly available, it would decrease the value and demand of his collection. Stories like this are rare, and it is not common knowledge how one could even access a private torrenting site, as its users are often afraid of the legal repercussions of distributing copyrighted work or losing their membership.
In 2016, the largest private torrenting site on the internet, What.CD, had its servers shut down by French authorities, and with that, the internet lost a treasure trove of otherwise unobtainable titles, predominantly rare and out-of-print indie, foreign, and experimental music. Unlike public — and equally illegal — torrent tracker sites such as The Pirate Bay, the site was once home to over 200,000 members, who could only enter the site through private invites or by passing a rigorous interview process with a site administrator.
Once accepted, its users had to consistently upload or seed torrents to keep their membership, thus ensuring a high level of quality and consistency in the uploaded material. The site most recently made headlines in 2013, when three unpublished stories from Catcher in the Rye author JD Salinger were leaked only three years after his death, still 47 years before he had permitted the University of Texas to publish the donated works. The stories were quickly removed from What.CD, both in respect to Salinger’s estate and in fear of the same government officials who would take down the site three years later. While the site’s membership process may have seemed elitist to some and its morals questionable to many, it is without question that the death of What.CDbrought with it an enormous loss to the state of musical archival efforts.
Your next favourite album might be in a bin somewhere across the globe, but the internet has the potential to bring this record to you and your computer’s speakers. African-American poet Amiri Baraka once said: “The artist’s role is to raise the consciousness of the people. To make them understand life, the world, and themselves more completely.” But with the potential loss of many important works of art, future generations may never get to experience some of the most illuminating and positively impactful works our society has created.
A deeper conversation needs to be had with the corporations that own these original works, more time and resources need to be donated to places like the Video Game History Foundation, and physical archives need to become more accessible. Everyone benefits when information and art are provided en masse.
There is an indoor Chinese market that I frequented as a child, where I could walk through swinging glass doors and be immediately transported to my grandfather’s country. This market housed the barber to whom my mother took me for my first haircut, the stall where my father would buy gleaming tins of fried tofu and noodles for big dinners, the char siu butcher whose stench I could never stomach, and the dress shop that I’d flee from my mother to admire instead.
Worn tarps draped over a pile of cassava buzzing with flies form a makeshift roof. The ground is stained concrete with a slight sheen. Rising and falling above the hum of meat freezers are the abrupt halts and rapid inflections of Cantonese and Mandarin, as natural to the place as any one of the pillars rising to the ceiling.
There are no pretenses here. Everyone is as comfortable in their own skin as they’ll ever be on this side of the Pacific. They speak their language, sell their food, and play their music against the backdrop of Vancouver rain rattling against the grimy skylights. As a little girl, I was perfectly comfortable wandering in and out of the stalls, clutching a sweet-smelling raisin twist from the Asian bakery in my left hand; if I close my eyes, I can still picture the twists and turns of every hallway and stairwell. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that every sign displayed lettering I couldn’t understand.
When I think about the town I grew up in, this market is one of the first things that comes to mind, because of what it represents. A home away from home for many, I suppose, like the rest of the Chinese-Canadian city rising around it. But to me, it is emblematic of a settling sense of half-belonging that seemed to trail me wherever I went, like I was of neither here nor there, just familiar enough, but never fully able to claim anything as my own. This haze of feeling also hangs over my relationship to the only home I’ve ever known: Richmond, British Columbia.
Richmond rises up from the mudflats of an island named for a showgirl, cradled by two arms of the Fraser River, just over the bridge from Vancouver proper. Its census places it as the North American city with the largest proportion of Asians, prompting the offhand joke or two about Canada’s real biggest Chinatown. Most of its inhabitants hail from the skyscrapers of Hong Kong or the vast expanse of the Chinese mainland, and that heritage bleeds into every realm of the city’s life.
It’s a city of paper-thin cherry blossoms in May and watercolour sunsets in August, but now that I’ve left for the rush of Toronto, I remember home best in the lull of its mid-autumn rain. Come October in Richmond, umbrellas bloom along every sidewalk, and bus windows eagerly fog to play canvas to children’s paintbrush fingers. Most of the trees have already surrendered their leaves, carpeting the streets outside bubble tea cafes in red and gold. And when the rain lets up, the air goes crisp and the mountains in the north come into sharp clarity, peaks dipped in pristine white. These memories, though, are a glass paperweight run smooth by time and distance; they hold the old fluttering sense of disbelonging, forged in my time there, firmly down.
My school years saw me pass through cliques of kids who’d break into their parents’ languages when they were most excited, slinging playful insults at each other high enough over my head to graze the ceiling. Nearly everyone I knew seemed to inhabit their identity with a natural ease that, for me, felt as futile as trying to catch rainwater in open hands. I was never Chinese enough to chime in or even follow along. They knew, and nudged me over that line into another box marked with ‘Filipino,’ after the blood that I inherited from one great-grandparent whose name I never learned. I grew up believing I was ‘other.’ To this day, I wear the Chinese seven-eighths of my heritage like an old pair of boots never quite broken in; after all this time, they still don’t sit quite right, and I don’t know how much further I have to walk before I stop blistering.
It wasn’t any easier trying to settle into the other side of my heritage. Some days, I’d catch friends tossing the label ‘Filipino’ at someone who’d come back too tan from vacation. They’d start when they remembered I was there, eyes wide as they tried to patch it with a quick, “Not like you. You’re… caramel” — as if that made any sense, a sweet for a nationality.
By the time I was nine or 10, I’d already developed the sense that my hometown was a place removed from the real world, and that I was no more than an observer passing through it. Maybe it began when I noticed that my sense of self seemed to drift while everyone else’s appeared anchored, and bled from there to tint my perception of all I encountered. The city around me seemed to stand still, every day running parallel to the ones before it; it was a sleepy, blue-tinged bubble of a world, punctuated by shrieking seagulls overhead and glowing signs at Asian grocers. It didn’t resemble anything I’d ever seen in ink or on screen, or anything that the world had given its golden stamp of approval to. Even the people had different skin. I remember thinking that someday I’d make it out to the real world where the people were. California, maybe, but probably the pulse and grit of New York City. All I had to do was wait; only then would my life begin.
I waited for a long time. Passed the years between the pages of books I’d picked out from the library, inhabited worlds where nobody seemed dampened by the same alienation that I felt. And so, I came to believe that finding someplace like that would finally lend me the sense of comfort that I’d spent my life straining toward. I began seeing the buildings of other cities reflected in the puddles of my own, until the world beyond tiny Richmond captivated my imagination in its entirety. Even the promise of a week spent someplace else was promise enough.
“Hey, Chinita. Chinita linda¡Vete aquí!” I was 17 years old, and it was March in Havana. Wandering the cobblestones under wrought-iron balconies stamped by Spanish imperialism, I had never been more bruised by the colour of my skin. Nagging mutters of “China, China” set racial catcalls to the beat of tropical music that streamed to the street from open windows, while all I could think was that I’d never set foot in that part of East Asia. It was worst in the sightseeing districts, where cars, immaculately kept from the ’60s, gleamed like pastel candies behind drivers hustling for a job. “Chinita, China, just 50 CUC for an hour!” Disillusionment was bitter on my tongue. I had no taste for it, but let it thicken there anyway.
On the flight home, Vancouver’s glass skyscrapers seemed more solid than ever before; for the entirety of the descent, my eyes traced the familiar rivers and roads with a newfound fondness and relief. I’d never been so thrilled to be back in my city, where not once had I been called out on the streets for my features or skin. The thought of the outside world began to lose its shine, and for a few brief days I was jolted out of the suspended state from which I’d always viewed my surroundings. Home was home — but when I recounted the experience to various circles of friends, their response was invariably the same: “You don’t look Chinese, though.”
Their gaze would sweep over my darker skin, coming to rest on my double-lidded eyes. And that was that.
Are there words to describe the way that my voice shrinks in my throat every time I try to describe this rift, that can take every moment of detachment and longing, and string them together in a path we can walk, so I can show you how wearying it is to wander? How wearying it is to always be wanting, always in search of that far-off place where they might see me, and know me, and finally understand. This search that has slipped under my skin, tangled itself in my nervous system so that I feel it always. It has grown more native to me than any place or nation ever could — and still it aches. Is there a way to capture that feeling? I’m still looking for one.
“You speak Chinese?”
“Mando or Canto?”
Somehow, even now that I’ve left home, the souls and rhythms of Chinese-Canadian communities never change. Same rivalries, same essential questions of allegiance. Nothing left behind from where we came from.
“Neither,” I always respond. I watch the fleeting confusion cross their face every time, as they try to make sense of me. If I leave it at that, the inevitable conclusion is, “Oh, so not Chinese, then.” Sometimes I attempt to explain my family’s language — an orphan of the diaspora, pulling words from two nations, native only to Manila’s Chinatown. The bottom line, though, is that there are times I may blend in, but I will never be taken as one of yours. No matter where I go, that seems to be the truth of my heritage.
Ever since I began dreaming of the world outside my hometown, I had always thought that I’d leave that sense of disbelonging behind once I made it out, as thoughtlessly as shedding a raincoat and shaking all the drops off, clean and untouched underneath. But I’ve crossed the country to get here, taken my place on one of those airplanes I’d traced from my window as a child, watched the glittering lights of my mountain city fade away beneath the clouds, and everything feels the same. I’m finally out, and I still walk an extra 20 minutes to the Asian grocer where I can’t understand the signs or the cashier’s greeting, can’t stop myself from gravitating toward the familiarity of that nine-toned language that, after all these years, still means nothing to me.
But I think I am beginning to understand that the divide I have always inhabited, that has chafed and pulled at me all my life, is where I feel most settled. It is as though that sense of unease has seeped into me and made me its own to claim and to hold — and it has been there all this time, waiting with steady patience for me to notice.
When I was seven or eight, my grandfather passed away. I remember my father going back to China to visit him, flying across the world from our little town of Normal, Illinois to catch a glimpse of my grandfather’s dying breath, to feel the heat of his smile once more.
I remember seeing my father cry for the first time in my life when he came back. I remember my family, disjointed and punctured by sharp breaths that stood in for a question that nobody dared to ask. Death is such a greedy thing — it takes and it takes from the living, leaving us to clean up its mess.
When my grandfather died, I was playing the piano. My mother walked into the room and took my hands off the keys.
“Grandpa’s gone,” she said.
She wrapped her arms around me, and after my initial shock, tidal waves of mourning crashed through me, beat against my body, until I began to cry — to cry long, shaking gasps.
When I cried, my tears were not weighed down by the same gravity as my father’s tears that fell half a world away; for him, my grandfather’s death was like a universe being swallowed up by the sun. For me, my grandfather was but a couple of distinct memories saved in my mind, pressed between pages. He was the man with creased, milky skin and kind eyes, who gave me a little green purse with sequin flowers when I was six, the very purse that I toted around and stuffed Barbies in.
When I think of him, his face swims in my vision, blurry and snipped from photos I have seen.
When my father thinks of him, he remembers China and the village he grew up in. I imagine that what swims before his eyes is not just his father’s face, but also the sharp clarity of love.
When I cried, I loved. But it was not the same love as my father’s. My father’s love is bumpy, with tired grooves in its surface. Run your hand across it too fast, and you’ll get splinters in your palm. For he loves my grandfather wholly, without filter or remorse. I love him smooth. Well-rounded, light, and small enough to fit in the palm of my hand.
When we picked up my father at the airport, I had to be reminded to be respectful of his privacy. I think back to that day, how he walked to the car, with a brown book grasped firmly to his chest, his back hunched. “Hi,” I said weakly, when he opened the car door. He nodded, and then closed the door behind him. There was a certain quality about him that was worn, filed down to very last grain. I had no other words to say to him.
The rest of the car ride was silent. By the time we had pulled into the driveway of our little townhouse, gravel crunching under the wheels, my father said nothing still. When we unlocked the front door and entered our home, my father moved immediately to prepare and mourn in the only way he knew how: through a ceremony.
His choice in mourning was odd. Funny, even, in a bitter sort of irony. My father is a man reshaped by assimilation and learning to exchange his immigrant past for American horizons. He came here, his fingers entangled with my mother’s, both children of China stepping foot into the Western world. When I envision this, I like to picture them with wild, untamed hair and a gleam of irrefutable spirit in their eyes. It is a beautiful way to think of them.
Yet my father was always the one rooted more firmly in American ways. My mother still retained some of her homeland, wrapping it around herself in a protective shawl. She never gave up her mother tongue. Not my father. When I was a child, I remember hearing him mumbling English words under his breath when he read books. He would repeat words over and over until he could pronounce them right.
And yet, when he returned home from the airport that day, he decided to mourn for his father in the same way that our ancestors would have: through the weekly burning of gifts.
My mother explained this to me in the kitchen, hovering over a counter and peeling an orange. “Bao bei, in Chinese culture, when somebody dies, we honour our dead. We help them transition to the afterlife through gifts, gifts like red paper money,” she said, brushing the soft rind aside and pulling the orange in half.
“By burning the gifts, they can reach your grandpa in the afterlife,” she explained.
“Okay,” I said, nodding. “How long are we doing it for?”
“What your father needs.”
When night fell, we took a metal bowl, gifts, and a lighter to the backyard. To begin our first ceremony, my father took the first sheet of paper money from the bag and flicked on the lighter. The flames licked hungrily at the fibres, beginning at a corner and curling its blackened edges in. He threw the paper into the bowl, and as the flickers of orange and yellow engulfed the sheet, we continued to feed the crackling fire. Soon, floating embers filled the air around us.
I held my breath. I was terrified by the thought that I might accidentally swallow scraps of a world I did not belong to, as if the blackened paper of the afterlife could forever settle like ash in the bottom of my lungs. The stars seemed brighter than they’d ever seemed that night, sprawled across the Illinois sky like pinpricks of heaven shining through black felt. Of course, the stars are bright there every night, but I wanted to believe that there was something special about that night, something given to the memory of my grandfather.
Under the cover of darkness, the glow of the fire illuminated my father’s face. I remember looking at him and seeing silent tears streaming down his cheeks. I wondered who the man before me was. I remember wishing that I could understand his emotions, hold them as if they were my own, if only for just a moment.
I wanted to run my hand over the splinters, feel his raw love for myself. But grief is a quiet activity. It is a singular one. We may all partake in it, but during the ceremony, my experience took a different shape to my father’s, and my mother’s another shape from ours. In the backyard, the single thread holding my family together was our physical existence in that moment. On that night, we were both strangers and family in a single shard of time.
That time came to a close when the last dying flickers of fire extinguished into embers. We were still for a moment, breathing in the grassy Illinois air mixed with grey smoke. My mother broke the quiet, shuffling around and stooping down to pick up the ashes that blew out of the metal bowl. I helped her, touching the crumbling sheets that didn’t survive the trek to the afterlife. And I thought to myself that, down here, it’s just paper. Just burnt ashes. Not a man’s heavenly ticket.
My father just stood there, motionless. When he finally looked at us, his red-rimmed eyes brimmed with an uncaged intensity. He pulled me to him suddenly and hugged me tightly, crushing me against his chest. I could hear his heart thumping. And after he pulled away and walked back inside, I could still feel his tears pooling on the top of my head.
We performed this ceremony for months, following the same patterns from that first night. Slowly, my father began to cry less, sometimes just staring into the fire, the orange and red dancing in his black eyes.
Though I am not a spiritual person, after those nights, I’d like to believe that when the day comes, I will be. That I, too, will be able to find peace in the ashes. Because what I discovered those nights was that our ceremony was an expression of grief and of love, that burning red paper was a cathartic release. It is the symbolism behind the paper and fire, black skies and tradition that brought my father peace and drew my family together.
The ceremonies tapered off slowly. I can’t pinpoint an exact cause for this — appointments cropped up, groceries were needed, rescheduling became postponing. Life got in the way, I suppose, the way it always does.
But no matter what those nights in the backyard meant for us as a family, they were also meant for us alone. For my father’s sake. For remembrance, and celebration, and reconciliation. I believe this to be true. Because, mourning the dead — that is never for the dead’s sake. It is for ours.
My father’s silence finally eased too. Years later, after we made the trek from Illinois to New Jersey, the first conversation we openly had about my grandfather was in the parking lot of the Millburn Deli. It was a particularly stuffy summer day, and my father looked out of the windshield as he spoke, his gaze trailing off to a point beyond my sight.
“He was different from other men,” my father said. “He was kind to my mom. He was good to us.” His voice trembled and he paused, his grip tightening on the paper bag full of sandwiches. “He loved you, you know? You meant everything to him. I just wish he got to see you more. It would’ve made him happy.” He wiped his eyes, clearing his throat as his voice softened.
“He was the kind of man who was the last person off the bus,” he continued. “Do you understand what I’m trying to say? He was always the last person off because he’d wait for everybody first. He was that kind of man. He helped people, he saw the world as a place to be helped. That was your ye ye.” He turned to face me, his clear-eyed vulnerability smoothing the wrinkles on his forehead, reducing the bags underneath his eyes. “That was your grandpa. That was your blood.”
I still grapple with that idea, to this day. Because I’m trying to understand what that means — family, blood, belonging. I’m trying to understand what it means to hurt together, to be a unit that moves together, knows each other, and loves one another. I’m trying to reconcile that with a past that has isolated us, through a pain that is singular, a mourning that is lonely. And I’m still trying to understand why that is and how exactly we can learn to truly know each other and recover. How we can wring the hurt out of our souls.
I do not have these answers, but for now, I can be patient. I will wait until I do.
And I will grasp what I do have tightly.
I think back to the black night skies and sprawling stars. I can see the thin ribbon of smoke curling toward my grandfather’s ghostly cheek, tempting the moon to try to swallow it whole. But it is the silence that marks it. It is the vacuum of sound that I remember these nights by. It is the profundity of entire fistfuls of grief and love and melancholy that change a person’s character.
It is a portrait of my family that is permanently etched in my mind, of us standing under the heavens and waiting to heal.
“Cyclops, you asked my noble name, and I will tell it; but do you give the stranger’s gift, just as you promised. My name is Nobody. Nobody I am called by mother, father, and by all my comrades.” — Odysseus, The Odyssey
A few weeks ago, my professor, who shall remain nameless, sent a blast email sporting a foreboding subject line. Accompanied by a cheerful ping, the notification read: “DISCLOSURE.” The email in question let the class know that instructors can view when and how much time you spend on Quercus. As my professor aptly noted, it was “a little Big Brother-ish.” And so, in the interest of full disclosure, he decided to let us know, and reassured us that our participation marks would not be affected. He did point out, though, that if we didn’t log into Quercus in a month, he would start worrying that we were not doing our readings.
A few weeks later, I realized that this knowledge did not at all change how I interacted with Quercus. I still obsessively refreshed my course page to see if my midterm mark had finally come out, and I still logged on at the wee hours of the morning to complete the readings that I should have finished earlier. I did not feel like the fact that my professors (and TAs) could view a log of my activity was a big deal. Should I worry about the absence of privacy? Of anonymity?
Let’s back up a little bit.
In order to understand why some people revere anonymity, we need to understand what anonymity actually is. After all, anonymity has many different meanings and uses. It could be a description for a general group, like anonymous sources or authors. It could refer to properties of objects, such as anonymous tips, message boards, or networks. It could even be an action; phrases like ‘anonymous posting’ and ‘incognito browsing’ are thrown around all the time.
Even though the word ‘anonymous’ may invoke a certain image of a hackerman type, sporting a mask and a robe, anonymity is certainly not a new concept. Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet), Mary Shelley, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), and even Alexander Hamilton all published under pseudonyms or anonymously. There must be some intrinsic value to anonymity for it to have such an impact.
‘Anonymity’ is often used interchangeably with ‘privacy,’ and there is an undeniable connection there. It is, however, imperative to distinguish between the two. Privacy is the ability to keep some things, well, private, regardless of their impact to society. For example, I close the door of the bathroom when I am showering, not because I am planning a massive art heist or a communist revolution, but because I don’t want to expose the world to my off-key shower concerts.
Anonymity, however, is used when you want people to pay attention to what you do, while hiding that it’s you who is doing it. When Edward Snowden leaked the 41 explosive NSA PowerPoint slides, he wanted the findings to be shouted from the rooftops — his name, less so. In fact, he also used a pseudonym, leaking the documents under the name Verax, Latin for truth teller.
So why would so many people choose to embrace anonymity? Well, first, it provides a measure of security. Whistleblowers throughout history have used anonymity as a way to protect themselves, while allowing their messages to spread. Snowden is among the most famous (or infamous, depending on your view), but Mark Felt, also known as Deep Throat, was crucial to revealing the details of the Watergate controversy. Obviously whistleblowers have good reason to maintain anonymity, since the information they want to reveal is often in direct contradiction to the government’s wishes. Anonymity can encourage and protect whistleblowers when they come forward, and the information gained is invaluable.
Revolutionaries often hide their names as well. Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, arguably some of the twentieth century’s most subversive thinkers, both sported pseudonyms: their real names are Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov and Lev Davidovich Bronstein, respectively.
“Common Sense,” a pamphlet published in 1776, which encouraged Americans to revolt against British tyranny, was penned “by an Englishman.” We now, of course, know that the writer was Thomas Paine.
During the Arab Spring, and now in Iran and China, political activists continue to speak out against human rights abuses without fearing for their lives thanks to anonymous, encrypted communication.
Introducing radical new ideas to the public can be dangerous business, but it is vital to a thriving, free society. It’s also worth remembering that well-run democracies hinge on the ability to have anonymous ballots. Thus, anonymity can serve an invaluable social function.
Anonymity is not only important in groundbreaking events. In the medical field, anonymity can be crucial for getting people to accept the help they need. A promise of anonymity when seeking tests for sexually transmitted infections, mental health assistance, or addiction counselling can be the difference between life and death.
Online, anonymity is an often-sought boon. On blogs, message boards, and social media, people straddle the line between complete frankness and absolute privacy. You can find no shortage of weird confessions and fringe communities whose members reveal no identifiable details. Oh, sure, you can read all about oprah_wind_fury’s relationship with their estranged sister, but it’s unlikely that they will disclose their country, gender, or name. This can be a weirdly freeing experience, as people find communities all around the world without fear of repercussions in their everyday life.
For instance, technology has often been dubbed the LGBTQ+ community’s ‘unsung hero’ for its ability to connect people who would otherwise be ostracized by their physical community. The main benefits of anonymity, then, are the protection of privacy and enhancements for liberty and autonomy, which furthers the existence of a free, democratic society and provides alternative communities.
Thing is, though, anonymity has gotten a bad rep lately.
There is a seemingly never-ending slew of threats sent to celebrities and politicians alike on Twitter. Trolls infiltrate communities and sow discord with their messages, some of which is blatantly paid for by foreign governments. Doxxing, or the release of personal information to the public, has been undertaken by hacktivists to target individuals from the Ku Klux Klan to abortion providers, law enforcement, and even the mistakenly identified Boston bomber.
Social psychologists have described phenomena related to the effects of anonymity within group settings, including group polarization, bystander apathy, and social loafing. There is no better place to see the detrimental effects of online anonymity than 4chan.
4chan is an image-based message platform consisting of various boards, ranging from ones focused on video games (/v/), to the paranormal (/x/), to the infamous “politically incorrect” (/pol/). These are the people responsible for innocent internet trends such as rickrolling and LOLcats, as well as the multiple suicide attempts of an 11-year-old girl and countless fake bomb threats. It has been, perhaps not unjustly, described as “the Wild West of the internet,” “lunatic, juvenile… brilliant, ridiculous and alarming” and “a perpetually angry frothing mob.” This site, which boasts close to 28 million monthly users, has occupied the spotlight in debates over online anonymity.
What makes 4chan different from other social media sites is the virtually perfect anonymity it offers. Users do not need to create an account or pick out a username. Instead, they engage in sometimes innocent (and sometimes not) conversation under a sweeping ‘Anonymous’ nameplate. As opposed to traditional social media, there are no permanent profiles to record user activity — every new post and every new comment stands on its own. This removes any semblance of systemic or social accountability that may exist on other sites, since even the reputation tied to a pseudonym is gone. It also means that you cannot directly establish a relationship with anyone, since there are no permanent identifiers of different users. Thus, 4chan is a decentralized echo chamber, a free marketplace of ideas.
4chan, then, considers personal identity meaningless but collective identity sacred. This is an invitation to create extremely toxic communities over time. The site is a known breeding ground for white supremacists, incels, and literal Nazis.
Look, 4chan is not inherently evil. What it is, though, is a perfect petri-dish example of the hazardous side effects of anonymity online. Perfect anonymity comes with no accountability, but relying on people’s conscience to guide their actions in place of tangible repercussions can be problematic, to say the least.
Now, the anonymity I described so far is all done with the anonymous party’s explicit consent. Using a pseudonym as an author or whistleblower, when seeking medical help, or turning to complete anonymity online are all undertaken directly by the individual. In some instances, however, you may have anonymity thrust upon you unwittingly.
In small communities, anonymity is frankly impossible — everyone knows your name, face, and habits. It is only in large, urban sprawls that you can feel like you are nobody, like just another face in the crowd. In 1903, German philosopher Georg Simmel remarked that “one nowhere feels as lonely and lost as in the metropolitan crowd.” Given that half of the world lives in an urban setting, this loneliness is a growing epidemic.
Students are particularly vulnerable. A study conducted with more than 20,000 urban subjects found that 18–22-year-olds (that’s us, folks!) are the loneliest generation. This sort of detachment is uncomfortably familiar at U of T — many students lament how their first-year courses are as big as their high schools or how difficult it is to find a common space as a commuter.
This, infused with internet anonymity, where plenty of students spend hours scrolling through and drowning in social media, can be greatly detrimental. Feeling anonymous in a crowd, online or otherwise, can make you feel hopeless, scared, or just plain sad.
This loneliness is also a major health problem. It shortens our lives, weakens our immune system, and makes us more susceptible to mental illness. Maybe taking a closer look at feelings of loneliness and anonymity in U of T’s community can be a good first step, where at least 70 per cent of students report feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or very sad.
From Odysseus’ clever ruse to the latest post on 4chan, anonymity has always been a constant companion — and it’s not going away anytime soon. It is a double-edged sword, but one that can be honed if we are attentive, reflective, and mindful of it. So, no, don’t freak out about your anonymity being stripped away by Quercus, but do if the government ever asks you to put your name on a ballot. If you need to vent anonymously once a month to U of T Confessions, then indulge, but if you start feeling overwhelmed by just how isolating everything is, take a moment to introspect. Anonymity is a tool like any other, and it’s up to us to determine what it will do.
Cast your mind back to 1787. A major revolution has just shocked the political climate of colonial America, and the writers of freedom are in an ideological war to amend the US Constitution. Under the pseudonym Publius, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay write a selection of articles and essays that are published in a variety of news publications and journals between 1787 and 1788. The Federalist Papers become an anonymous contribution to the debate on constitutional ratification, with enduring political influence.
The art of writing to express opinions has both preceded and followed the works of the Founding Fathers. Today, though, writing manifests very differently: online. Perhaps it isn’t as beautiful as the quill and parchment combination, but the politicians of our day have found solace and self-expression in ‘Send Tweet’ and ‘Share Post’ buttons. For better or for worse, audiences are no longer spatially or temporally bound.
In 1960s China, Chairman Mao Zedong depended partly on the distribution of his Little Red Book of quotations to spread his tenets. Under his rule, the Ministry of Culture aimed to distribute it to the entire population. But that was then. Who reads whole books these days? In contemporary America, President Donald Trump’s red-hatted Make America Great Again coalition depends on less than 280 characters for its leader’s wisdom. His tweets are blasted across the international stage at all hours, often ridden with spelling and grammar errors and meme-making mistakes.
In many ways, social media has opened the doors for free speech on an unprecedented scale. In fact, our culture is saturated — to the point of bursting — with opinion. But how does this influence political discourse and how everyday citizens engage with their representatives?
For one thing, social media helps to hold leaders and public figures accountable. For example, subreddit r/TrumpCriticizesTrump was created to immortalize and criticize Trump’s old tweets, and exemplifies the ability of social media to highlight hypocrisy. Another prominent example is in the case of former FBI director James Comey and the investigation on Russia, wherein Trump vehemently denied pressuring Comey to not look into Michael Flynn. However, tweets dug up from 2016 from Trump’s own archive reveal accusations against Comey for trying to block investigations into Hillary Clinton’s emails during the elections. The enduring nature of social media can even help constituents testify against politicians, who are quick to go back on their word. While relying on shame isn’t always the most politically productive avenue, it’s absolutely part and parcel of our new media culture.
Each tweet, like, and share is now a political statement — and each user is accountable for their past beliefs and ideas. With over 500 million tweets posted a day, it’s safe to say that the shape of political discourse is constantly shifting and changing. Topics, ideas, and even political actors seem to exist in a constant state of flux. Who knows what the world will look like next week, never mind next year?
Social media is paradoxical in the ways in which it influences politics, however. Although it helps enable free speech in some countries, it can also cocoon discussions in siloed spheres of influence. Information may be far more accessible today, but in an era suddenly flooded with fake news, political discussions remain saturated with toxicity. With so many voices clamouring to be heard, claiming they have the one, objective truth, who are we supposed to believe?
Part of the beauty of the pseudonyms of the past is that discourse and writings could be consumed without bias or judgement. Social media is, to an extent, able to reproduce this for some people who choose to surf the web behind a different identity. But for those whose opinions really impact the future, it means that ideas are directly given and weighted with an identity. As noted in Science, “About 47 percent of Americans overall report getting news from social media often or sometimes, with Facebook as, by far, the dominant source.” The influence of social media is undeniable, but it is also nebulous and hard to regulate.
Our personal politics remain subject to the heavy influence of social media. The risk of consuming falsified information, on top of the speed at which political discourse moves on the internet, limits our ability to digest new ideas and form our own opinions. This is the toxicity that I fear will plague forthcoming discussions as leaders like Trump continue to use social media as their presidential podiums.
Our technologies talk to us, but despite the glimmer of novelty usually imposed on voice technologies, they aren’t that new.
Siri has been reading us the weather for over seven years now, and, historically, talking computers date back to 1952, when the University of Edinburgh created the Parametric Artificial Talker (PAT), which was one of the first computers to transmit artificially generated sounds. Today, more people talk to technology than ever before. As of 2017, there are over 700 million iPhone users worldwide and over 20 million Alexa devices have been sold. As of last year, there are over 500 million devices equipped with Google Assistant.
Usually, when we think about verbal interactions with technology, we default to two distinct tropes. The first is viewing voice technologies as a joke. There’s a myriad of YouTube videos featuring kids playing tricks on Alexa or listicles of funny things you can ask Siri (if you like a good dad joke, I suggest asking Siri why fire trucks are red). The second is our fear of voice technologies. Often, we imagine these devices as one degree away from the robot apocalypse or the creepy human-technological relations portrayed in films like Ex Machina (2014) and Her(2013). In fact, when I first pitched this article topic at the magazine meeting, someone shared that they once overheard their eight-year-old sibling saying “I love you” to Alexa. Everyone around the table either gasped, cringed, or shook their head.
I think the relationships between people and their voice technologies are more complex than we like to think they are.
To understand these relationships, I’m putting aside some very real fears about theses technologies, such as surveillance and security concerns (you might want to look into how much your device listens to you or what happens to your data). I want to unpack the relationships between people and their voice technologies because I think it’s interesting that all these talking technologies are gaining popularity at a time when popular discourse might have you thinking that we don’t ‘talk’ or ‘share our feelings’ anymore.
Talking is a distinct mediation of our relationship with technology. It’s different than writing down our thoughts or touching our screens. If we can communicate via touch or language, why do we feel the need to talk to our technologies? What makes these interactions unique?
Cristina Poindexter, a former voice technology researcher at Google, explains that “social interactions teach us. It doesn’t matter if they’re with beings that are clearly alive, or with technology that occupies some uncanny middle.” She suggests that conversations with these technologies are just a new and different kind of social connection. Conversely, Sherry Turkle, an author and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor, insists that conversations with robots lead to robotic conversations between humans. “As we treat machines as if they were almost human, we develop habits that have us treating human beings as almost-machines,” according to Turkle.
Talking to technology is especially contested when the tech users are children.
One New York man reported that the first words his toddler learned were “mom,” “dad,” “cat,” and “Alexa.” Also, communication breakdowns between children and voice technologies can be confusing — until very recently, voice technologies were programmed to respond to adult voices. Parents also fear that barking commands at Alexa, Siri, or Google Assistant teaches their children to be rude or bossy.
However, early studies at MIT suggest that children are well aware that these devices are not real people. Research has also found that sophisticated voice technology designed to interact with children can assist kids struggling with language or speech development. Voice technologies could also provide companionship to socially isolated children, building their confidence until they feel comfortable speaking with their peers. As for Alexa making kids rude: experts at Carnegie Mellon University actually think teaching kids to say “please” and “thank you” to Alexa blurs the line between humans and technology, further confusing how we treat people versus how we treat robots.
Another example of the intricate relationships between people and voice technologies occurs within the realm of therapy, health, and care. Services like The Difference — an on-demand service provided through Alexa — provide therapy and counselling for people with less money, difficulty finding someone they trust, or a desire to remain anonymous. Socially isolated individuals such as seniors or neurologically atypical people may also find comfort and companionship in voice technologies. Alexa can also assist these individuals in care practices like reminding them to take their medication. Yet it becomes tricky when these technologies begin to replace the care we extend to each other. On the other hand, would people who rely on these technologies be better off if the robot wasn’t there and they had nobody to talk to?
So what does this have to do with anonymity, intimacy, and relationships? Are we risking our ability to communicate with each other for the opportunity to interact anonymously? Conversations between human beings and their voice technologies fall at the centre of a complicated debate about human technological relations. One thing is for sure: as voice technologies become increasingly ubiquitous, we need to confront some difficult questions, and we can only do that if we understand the full scope of the relationship between humans and their voice technologies.