‘don’t take it personally’: Identity Performance and Surveillance Culture

In my day job I moderate for an online kids’ game. I’ve written about this before, mainly in relation to knowledge toolsets and pedagogy, but if there is one aspect to my work that bears the closest resemblance to Christine Love’s lauded visual novel don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story, it’s the practice of surveillance performed by the novel’s protagonist.

The premise of the game is that in a near-future, net-connected high school, the interpersonal dramas of the students of one homeroom class are laid out bare for their surveying teacher. That teacher, John Rook, has been instructed to follow their public and private conversations for signs of bullying, cheating, and so on.

Some players have professed a bit of discomfort monitoring the students’ communications in this game. Not me — or at least, not at first. The literary strategy taken on by Love’s interwoven narrative reminds me of nothing so much as .hack, another underrated Singularity-inspired story that echoes Janet Murray’s unfulfilled prescription for “kaleidoscopic narrative”:

As Marshall McLuhan pointed out, the communications media of the twentieth century are mosaic rather than linear in structure, as compared to the printed book. Newspapers are made up of many stories calling for our attention on a single page, films are mosaics of individual shots, and television is even more mosaic in the age of the remote control than it was when McLuhan wrote about it. These mosaic informational formats have created mosaic patterns of thought that we now take for granted.


This kaleidoscopic power of the computer allows us to tell stories that more truly reflect our turn-of-the-century sensibility. We no longer believe in a single reality, a single integrating view of the world, or even the reliability of a single angle of perception. Yet we retain the core human desire to fix reality on one canvas, to express all of what we see in an integrated and shapely manner. The solution is the kaleidoscopic canvas that can capture the world as it looks from many perspectives–complex and perhaps unknowable but still coherent (Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, Free Press, 1997, pgs. 155 and 162).

An example of such a kaleidoscopic narrative would be something assembled from small fragments of stories, told across multiple media, such as news reports and forum threads. In this respect, .hack and don’t take it personally are both merely simulated kaleidoscopic narratives, creating the illusion of moving between media within the larger apparatus of a single system. In our real life, this early proposal of Murray’s is more accurately described as being taken back to meatspace with the Alternate Reality Game, in which players assemble clues from across devices and media, leading up to a scavenger hunt or similar field trip and often over a considerable period of time. Still, even as mere artifices, .hack and don’t take it personally both attest to what seems like the heart and soul of Murray’s description — that of fiction reflecting the complex, convergent, participatory way our life stories evolve from these fragments, which (when taken individually) often do not yield much meaning at all.

Moreover, unlike .hack‘s stop-gaps in the narrative procession which tended to break up any affectation of real-time, don’t take it personally requires at least the illusion of deft multitasking, as the player switches back and forth between a constantly updating stream of Facebook-esque status updates and private messages and the person-to-person interactions that John has with his students. That these private messages evolve into a sort of coda informing the personalities and actions of hormonal, wired-in teenagers indeed feels quite natural and elegant of Love. It was only when I entered Chapter 4 and private conversations continued to venture into murky territory that the game seemed to hold a mirror up and confront me with its parallels in a way that I could no longer ignore.

This was about when I started reaching for my banhammer that wasn’t there.

It isn’t that I am completely at peace with the idea of total surveillance — I most certainly am not, nor is the monitoring done at my job anything like the extremism displayed in Love’s visual novel. But the core of truth that she is getting at (that is: the obliviousness with which these adolescents are acting out the sexual roles they have been presented to them in popular culture) is made all the more uncomfortable by the position that Love places the player in, which is hauntingly reminiscent of my own position at work. I can punish, I can reinforce standards, but I can never make it personal. Nor is it in my power to sit anyone down and explain why they’re debasing themselves and playing right into a culture that is going to chew them up and spit them out.

The kids that I moderate are a little younger than don’t take it personally‘s colorful cast of high school juniors, but they’re no less curious about sex and often many times more clueless. They, like John Rook’s students, also know full well that they’re being monitored. And just like Rook’s students, often enough that they just don’t seem to care.

Despite all of Arianna’s claims to the contrary, it’s quite evident how emotionally immature and self-destructive that she is, barreling headlong into a lust-fueled crush for her teacher. Whatever your moral stance on the sexual exploration of teenagers (if indeed it’s even proper to have one — I don’t mind what they do, as long as proper education is involved and it’s not on my site), Arianna’s attempted exploration does not in the least resemble the relationships of the novel’s two queer couples, both of which base themselves strongly on mutual trust, openness, and an easy going pace into the physical aspect of things. Boy-crazed Taylor and Arianna, on the other hand, preoccupy themselves so much with sounding and looking more mature than their years that their eventual behavior is terrifying.

Christine Love captures the impulsive, shortsighted character of adolescence phenomenally well here, including the reproduction of all the expectations and sex-obsessed attitudes that our mass media has thrust upon these kids. Girls like Taylor and Arianna don’t just come upon phrases like “want to suck his cock” on their own any more than technophile Kendall’s net slang emerges in a vacuum. It reflects a culture of sexual power relationships and gender performity that often enough seems to flatter men while deemphasizing the woman as being nothing more than an animal whose pleasure is derived from men’s. Arianna qualifies her crush by mentioning her emotional desires as well, of course, but the shockingly frank language that Taylor brings to the table is anything but dismissed in the ensuing conversation.

My impulse, upon reading the exchange, was very much identical to one that I might have on the job: I wanted to delete it and send them both an automatically generated warning. Intentional and impersonal, but hardly pedagogical. But then, mulling on my reaction, I found that I really just despised Rook’s skittishness about confronting the girls on what he (I) had read. At work, I have neither the time nor qualifications to be anyone’s sex ed teacher, but if not for Rook’s misconception about his role (as someone who is expected to acknowledge the surveillance that he performs), he could easily have interrupted and set the girls straight about impulsive behavior and self-respect — among many other day-saving interventions.

Were this that kind of game, I have no doubt it would work quite well. But Christine Love’s John Rook is a fallible guy who is in no position to lecture anyone on impulsivity, and Love writes him with a full awareness of this fact.

Moreover, once I managed to separate myself from “work mode,” I found that I was entirely perturbed by the entire situation that the visual novel presents. I’m far from the only one. Electron Dance’s Joel Goodwin goes beyond the simple ambivalence that my choice of day job affords me into abject concern, writing: “This isn’t liberation, this future is the Panopticon, with the teacher the almighty authority who gets to witness everything. The kids are happy to submit their privacy to overseers to cherry-pick for pertinent or embarrassing information” (“The Glass Society”, Electron Dance, 13 April 2011). The carefree attitudes of the students reminds me of nothing so much as a similar part in Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, describing moderated kids’ games as open to the exploitation of Homeland Security and, thus, a police state.

They perked up when I told them that the games were unmonitored. These days, any online game you play is filled with all kinds of unsavory sorts. […] Worst of all, though, are the monitors who spend all their time spying on our discussions and snitching on us for violating their Terms of Service, which say no flirting, no cussing and no “clear or masked language which insultingly refers to any aspect of sexual orientation or sexuality.” (Cory Doctorow, Little Brother, 2008, pg 35).

In the wake of a terrorist attack on San Francisco, that monitoring begins to include enhanced surveillance of the youth for potential terrorist activity. Generational divides pit an older, Panopticon culture against the free information, internetworked youth, leading to the youth movement’s mantra “Don’t trust anyone over the age of 25!”

Reading Little Brother for the first time (at the age of 24) was another mirror moment for me. “I am already part of the evil Empire,” I lamented, “I’m a Storm Trooper. An independent contractor working on the Death Star.” It’s easy to get carried away with these anxieties, especially with a blogger like Cory Doctorow fueling them. In truth, my game is as well-meaning as they come and is in no danger of Homeland Security takeover any time soon. On the other hand, I recognize that the real danger implicit in Doctorow’s novel is the Nuremberg Defense of such enterprises, of the Sam Lowries of the world apathetically separating one’s morals from the imperatives of the job until they themselves are caught in the machinery.

This I see as being the corollary of Joel Goodwin’s worried speculations on the future youth and their shifted definition of privacy. Just as the students in don’t take it personally make Goodwin “think of people who don’t use their vote, forgetting how hard people have fought for that vote [and are] subjected to indiscriminate surveillance without checks and balances,” Rook’s predicament, like that of Sam Lowry in Brazil, are a reminder that the one panacea to the monitor’s own runaway and neglected culpability is determined, personal responsibility. Poetically, of course, this is something both John Rook and Sam Lowry don’t come to until far too late.

Still from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). Small office cogs toil — oblivious of the machine that they help to run.

Moderators are all but absent in .hack, usually appearing as oafish and inept cops of familiar Lestrade-like proportions. In don’t take it personally, they are strangely defanged, as kids have adapted to an unfair and uneven “glass society.” In Doctorow’s Little Brother and Gilliam’s Brazil, however, it isn’t even the authorities themselves which are the danger, but an enormous, menacingly ill-balanced system of routinized punishment and standards enforcement that might be able to recognize and punish bad conduct but can’t provide context, education, or understanding and, as a consequence, becomes dangerous. It’s the last of these that I don’t want my job to turn into. On the average day, I think I manage this as much as time and manners permit. But I can never be sure.

The mod in me envies John Rook’s squandered opportunity to meaningfully interact with Arianna and Taylor about their priorities. The feminist in me sees such an action as treating the symptoms rather than the disease in which young women (and young men) sign up for their own exploitation. Ultimately, however, my anxieties seem to align with Goodwin’s description of “guilt-by-click-association”: by involving ourselves in the digital lives of others, we become in some way accountable. Taylor’s and Arianna’s exchange revealed nothing about the characters that I couldn’t already infer from their behavior, but seeing it written out impels me to some kind of response — if only I could be certain of what.


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