Sunday, December 05, 2010

Masked and Anonymous?

Did you hear the one about the guy who walked into a pizza place and ordered 178 pizzas? True story-- a few weeks ago a guy shows up at a Massachusetts business called Antonio's Pizzeria and tells them he is a member of Bob Dylan's road crew (he apparently was wearing some credentials around his neck), and that he'd be needing $3,000 worth of pizzas. So eight employees work until 5 a.m. the next morning getting everything ready. They wait for the guy to show up, and then they wait some more. If they know their Dylan songs, perhaps they start thinking about a line from "Lonesome Day Blues": "I tell myself something's coming but it never does." They find out the hard way that the guy was a fraud, that he had no affiliation to Bob Dylan (who was in town to do a concert, but definitely didn't order any pizzas). So they call the cops, report the fraud, donate as many pizzas as they can to charitable causes, and throw away the rest.

But surprisingly, the story doesn't end there. A few days later it was reported that police had identified the culprit. The details of the detective work were not released, but here is what we know:
1. The suspect is from New Jersey. He did go to Massachusetts to go to the concert, and subsequently returned to New Jersey.
2. His face was captured by the store's video surveillance

Whatever the details of the case, I find it remarkable that somebody from a different state was identified apparently on the basis of his visage alone. Conventional wisdom is that the Internet has enabled individuals to enter an age of anonymity, that we can now hide behind our computer screens and assume alternate personae that allow us to lob invectives with impunity. But the irony is that once you venture off of the virtual grid, there is a better chance you'll be literally recognized than at any point in history. For centuries one could get lost in the frontiers, the wildernesses, or even the populated urban areas. And even in relatively recent times organizations like the KKK thrived on the covering that a hood and a little bit of darkness provided. But in an era of ubiquitous cell phone cameras, increasingly sophisticated facial recognition systems, and superior forensic science, the grid has widened. (And even in the virtual world, many people have learned the hard way that identity is not as opaque as it seems. Discovery of an identity is often just a subpoena away).

Conventional wisdom also holds that we live in an era of fragmented identity, where we can create multiple alternate on-line personae. But when people spend more time on Facebook than on Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Microsoft, Wikipedia and Amazon combined, the end result may be a collapsing of personae. No longer are we showing different faces to the various social circles that we encounter (which has always been the historical default), but we present a broad, consistent and arguably unified image of ourselves to all of our "friends" (which is much more of an inclusive term that is applied much more liberally than ever before).

There was a time when comparisons between the WWW (world wide web) and the WWW (wild, wild west) were abundant almost to the point of cliche. But if we think about what it meant to be a citizen of the wild west--to be afforded anonymity with each new location traversed, to be afforded the opportunity to reinvent oneself, to be afforded the opportunity to quickly build and discard relationships, and yes, to be afforded the opportunity to be a troublemaker and then get out of Dodge before the sheriff could get on your trail--it is pretty much the opposite of the post-World Wide Web existence we all know.

And if you don't believe me, I dare you to walk into a pizzeria and order 178 pizzas.


Blogger Benjamin Fink said...

wow, that is a crazy story.

8:43 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

That is some crazy stuff. Personally if I had someone order 178pizzas from my business I would immediately become suspecious and would probably fail to complete his/her order.

9:35 PM  

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