In this link, you will see random images of food and places as well as Google map with an arrow pointing to one location. Those pictures belong to Hasan M. Elahi, a Bangladeshi-born American who is a interdisciplinary media artist. Those images are a part of his still on-going project called “Tracking Transcience”. Why could he possibly want to show the whole world what he is doing and exactly where he is at?
Following the tragic 9/11 attacks, Elahi’s name was mistakenly added to the US government’s watch list in 2002. As such, an investigation was carried out by the FBI. After around 6 months, Elahi’s name was eventually cleared but the FBI was asked to still keep a watchful eye on him. Thus, Elahi gladly helped the team by executing the project. He allowed every member of the public, worldwide to follow his everyday life from what he eats, sees and wherever he is located as seen in the images below.
Elahi did this as a way to confront the FBIs and tell them that he really isn’t a terrorist threat in anyway. It’s a way of saying “you asked for it, here’s what you get”. He wanted to give the FBIs exactly what they want. Randall Packer mentioned in an interview with Elahi that “you are your own spy agency spying on yourself” which I thought was a good way to conceptualize this project. The FBIs need not spy on him to dig information on him as he presents everything they want to know on the website where he situates himself very openly.
In the beginning, several people commented that Elahi putting himself out there so freely was dangerous. People could plant an attack on him anytime, knowing his whereabouts every minute. However, in the interview with Randall Packer, Elahi mentioned how barely a few years later, it became exactly what social media users are doing. Referring to Elahi’s GPS device that he puts in his pocket everyday to track his location, we can see a similarity in the location-sharing function called “Snap Map” on Snapchat today as seen in the picture above. Anybody can know of your whereabouts as they did for Elahi’s.
It is certainly not rare to see social media users of today posting photos of their meals and loots on the daily especially on Facebook and Instagram. The main difference between their photos and Elahi’s is that Elahi updates his life live while social media users mostly carefully curate what they want to post to keep up with the expectations that the public have of them. This brings me to my point on our digital identity. Unlike Elahi, people today present themselves on the Internet mirroring how they want people to view them. It is never their true selves.
“If we choose how we present ourselves,
and we choose who we present ourselves to, don’t we risk
just falling into a collective just-so-story about who we are and
what we ought to believe?” – D.E Wittkower
This quote above questions the authenticity of people online. Are we really who we are? To me, social media platforms serve as a barrier to protect our vulnerability and true selves. It shields our weaknesses as we put up our best front. This short film below explains the shield that these platforms are.
A question to ponder on: What turn would social media take if all its users were to update their lives in real-time as Elahi, online without the ability to pick and choose what they want to share?
One thought on “FBI, here I am!”
Very impressive critique of Tracking Transience and its connection to our everyday social media experience. You are absolutely correct in saying that Elahi foresaw in his work the way we would all be surveilling ourselves by sharing through social media. He was clearly ahead of his time. And you made some excellent points about how we curate what we share and by referencing this idea to the essay by Wittkower. One thing I want to point out: Elahi is also heavily curating his sharing. As I pointed out in the interview, despite the abundance of information he provides about all sorts of places he visits, beds he has slept in, etc., we know very little about him personally. That is a conscious decision he has made to share everything about where he goes, but nothing about himself. That is also a form of curation and is important to the analysis of this work.