Biography, Communication and Media Studies, Digital Scholarship, Life Writing

Data Portraits: Identity, Privacy, and Surveillance

30.04.17 | Comment?

“Our pasts are becoming etched like a tattoo into our digital skins,” wrote J. D. Lasica in 1998. Since then, developments relating to online identity and privacy have progressively borne out his provocative assertion. Today, mass surveillance of our lives has become commonplace and endemic, leading to what Andrew Keen has described as a “catastrophe of abundance” of personal data.

When Time named its 2006 Person of the Year as “You,” it was signaling a global trend toward deep integration of data and algorithmic culture into our lives with the rise of social media. On its front cover, a computer screen displaying the word “You” served as a reflective mirror. “Yes you,” the caption explains, “You control the Information Age,” and “you” are responsible for “founding and framing the new digital democracy.” The mirror symbolically captured the open-endedness of the Internet and its readiness to be filled with reflections of ourselves while the “you” defined this moment in terms of individual empowerment. As millions of users logged into smartphones, vast new data sets began to be generated continuously, producing “big data” on the movement and behavior of people on an unprecedented scale. This facilitated sophisticated mapping of data points and transactions simultaneously on the micro-macro scale, forming vast archives for mining.

Now, a decade later, this highly personalized but “faceless” information environment ceaselessly shapes us. Government legislation, privacy policies, and corporate interests all allow for tracking our behavior as a condition of use of services. It is practically impossible to use an online service without agreeing to hand over personal information and consent for its reuse for unspecified purposes at any time. All of this is forming a complex, ever-changing data portrait.


Arthur, Paul Longley. “Data Portraits: Identity, Privacy, and Surveillance.” In “What’s Next? The Futures of Auto/Biography Studies,” edited by Ricia A. Chansky and Emily Hipchen. Special issue, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 32, no. 2 (2017): 371–73.

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Paul Arthur is Vice-Chancellor’s Professorial Research Fellow and Chair in Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. He speaks and publishes widely on major challenges and changes facing 21st-century society, from the global impacts of technology on communication, culture and identity