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No Place to Hide (especially if your head is in the sand)

Earlier this month I had some fun satirizing Wired magazine for what I thought was a real non-story as a cover item (like they care what I think?).

What I neglected to add later was as I read the issue, they had a real cover worthy story in Gone Forever: What Does It Take to Really Disappear? where they profiled people like Mathew Sheppard who tried to make his life troubles go away by faking his own death and attempting to vanish. The point being, superficially, that it is harder these days to pull it off given our digital footprints.

That is a surface summary- in the article, the failure of the vanishing act is nearly always not the superiority of the tracking, but how tracking makes it easy to find the human failures of the vanishees– when they contact someone, when they use something under their old name, etc– it is the human failings that crash the vanishing act.


What was mildly clever is that Wired added on a bonus to the story– they dared the audience to engage in a sleuth game as author Evan Ratliff went “in the lam” and readers were offered $5000 if they could nail him in public.

This came back to me today, in reading the Sunday paper in New Orleans before I return home, the Times-Picayune had a story on this as No place to hide? An online manhunt ends when food, of course, gives man away in New Orleans (since it seems the paper does not archive stories beyond 14 days, I have attached a PDF version I screen-printed; more on this later) — they had a story here as Ratliff was indeed found in New Orleans, a place where, as the article suggests, people have historically been able to hide.

To me, the woefully untrained journalistic critic, the author totally missed the local-ness of the story, and instead largely inflated the fear layer of how we are all unable to escape the giant digital eye. Witness these flowery paraggraphs:

The question is: At the dawn of the 21st century — this era of finely calibrated artificial intelligence, highly attuned and interconnecting technological systems, omniscient cross-linked databases and software tracking devices that pinpoint a freckle on the nose of a child from two galaxies away — can a law-abiding citizen still go incognito anywhere on the planet, even in New Orleans?

Okay, that’s not horrible, I use sarcasm myself at times. Try this one on:

As the “virtual” world expands with astonishing velocity, obliterating all boundaries that once offered individuals a modicum of privacy, the “real” world — this physical space we so tenuously occupy — gets smaller every day…. Our every financial transaction, meal, car trip, text message or e-mail is monitored and electronically collated by gargantuan information systems, which makes it tougher — and considerably less romantic — to go on the lam these days than it was back in the days of Bonnie and Clyde.

Or take this, Clyde-o and Bonster:

Geek squads logged phone calls and text messages, monitored Ratliff’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, intercepted ATM and credit card receipts as fast as he made the transactions. The widespread but anonymous acts of domestic espionage pretty much serve to confirm the growing sense that personal privacy is a quaint relic of the 20th century, kind of like black-and-white TV and rotary-dial phones.

Damn, I was really pining for my rotary phone.

The point here is not that it is hard to vanish in modern society- it is hard to vanish if you are author of a story in a highly publicized magazine who offers money to find you as you remain elusive by using your own credit cards, phone numbers, twitter, and facebook accounts. I fail to see how you can extend this to some scary ominous conclusion that our privacy is gone. Privacy certainly diminishes when one deliberately and daringly puts it in the spotlight.

If I was going to try and vanish, I might use some different strategies, like actually hiding my trail. Duh.

What Wired ran was a fun gimmick a game, but can hardly be extrapolated to living in a surveillance state (yes I know that my face is capture when I buy coffee at 7-11, yep, that keeps me awake at night).

If privacy were so gone as the author dooms, wouldn’t we have no missing children? Wouldn’t Bin Laden be stuck in Leavenworth? I cannot draw the same dotted lines.

The author of the story might have played up instead, perhaps more the story of the person who found Ratliff, or say, parallel stories of real disappearances that happen here in New Orleans, or back parallels in history.

Or another missing story idea is how bands of people crowdsourced together online, used modern tools to collaborate and share as people go engaged in the “hunt”. I guess there’s no ad-selling space in papers for stories of people working together.


My limited experience of journalism comes from watching TV and movies 😉 but I thought, end even got what a thought was the post-The Wire perspective of season 5 that newpapers have editors that filter out fluff like this.

Oh well, newspapers are perhaps “a quaint relic of the 20th century” or maybe, the 19th.

Speaking of which, I refer readers to and suggest little sadness in the demise of newspapers as for the most part, they totally have resisted the changes in culture and technology. In evolution, you deserve to have your species terminate if you don’t start adapting and mutating.

Look at that online version of the Times-Picayune; first I have to pick and page my way in the store stepping over ads I dont look at. The ad supported model of print papers (classifieds) as fallen aside, yet the best way to save this is to wall paper the content online with glaring ads I am not actively ignoring?

And look at the online version of the storythere is not one single contextual hyperlink; they fail to make use of the basic fundamental affordance of the web that makes it a web- links; even links to their own content:

no place no links

And ditto for what Is saw on their main web site– they offer a 14 day news archive! Amazing! Your content disappears from the public space? What strategy is that? Storage costs are so low, yet it is the strategy to take away the content that might draw future visitors to your newer content?

I for one, am not mourning the loss of newspapers… I mourn the loss of jobs and the possible loss of quality writing, but newspapers as in industry? Y’all been sitting like proud Brontosaur-es at twenty minutes til the end of the Jurassic period, ignoring that flash in the sky.


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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so)

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