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How To Lose Yourself (Or Not) in 30 Days: Wired’s Identity Loss Experiment

Wired magazine ran an interesting competition starting on August 13. Writer Evan Ratliff who had written about how people disappear tried to disappear from the world and everyone he knew while Wired encouraged and helped people try and find him. The winner would receive $5,000. Ratliff explained his motivation:

It’s one thing to report on the phenomenon of people disappearing. But to really understand it, I figured that I had to try it myself. So I decided to vanish. I would leave behind my loved ones, my home, and my name. I wasn’t going off the grid, dropping out to live in a cabin. Rather, I would actually try to drop my life and pick up another.

The article is here. Anyone interested in privacy, manhunts, and technology should enjoy the read which I recommend. For one thing, the tale reminded me of Hitchcock thrillers where everyone is looking for an innocent man. Like Roger O. Thornhill in North by Northwest, Ratliff uses buses and trains to evade his pursuers (of course Ratliff asked for this one but the feel is quite similar). And like the movies there were sides. In this case, teams formed to hunt Ratliff down and much smaller ones tried to help him (the details about how folks used technology to track and coordinate the hunt (down to finding out who is cat sitter was and contacting the sitter) while Ratliff used it to fool the hunters is another fun part of the story). An interesting point comes from the romantic quarter. I started with a emotional response that the author and others expressed. It would be nice to drop out of one’s life; escape for a bit. I like the idea that one might be able to reinvent one’s life. I also think that our society does a poor job of letting people claim a new beginning and instead embraces a Inspector Javert approach to identity. I rooted for Ratliff. I wanted to believe that if you really said let me alone, it could work. But, as I read on, something else became clear. Ratliff missed his social life. That sense of absence was heightened because of Facebook and Twitter. Insofar as we like some of our lives, we probably like the people in them. Furthermore, when Ratliff has a triumph, he laments that he cannot share it.

In short, the article shows how easy it is to track someone. It also shows that once the spotlight is off, a type of obscurity returns. The problem may be that the spotlight can be turned on all too easily.