January 19, 2012

Anonymity Freaks Me Out

The first and only time I voted was in the 1988 presidential election. I clearly remember walking in that little private wank booth and looking at this strange paper on which I was to mark my selection for this or that candidate. I remember feeling so small, so irrelevant, the process so dehumanizing.I was a nick on a prepopulated page, the same as every other: a nick in a series of identical nicks.

In an effort to overcome my reduction to a number, to reclaim my sense of humanity, I wrote in my choice for president: my grandfather, Isidore Englander. It was reassuring to see my handwritten scrawl on this institutional document and to see a name so close to me, so absolutely idiosyncratic. I was confident that this would be Gramps’ sole vote. This paper would not be one among many; it would be singular.

I never voted again. More than the irrelevance of the act, it’s the demand for anonymity that turns me off. Give me a chance to stand up and voice my opinion, declare my decisions before the masses, and I’d consider voting. But walking into a beaded room bereft of the should-be carnal candy? Eeesh.

I have the same experience when buying things. The exchange of money for goods is prescribed in such a way that seller and consumer need not exchange anything else. This coldness, this reduction of ourselves to mere function, freaks me out. I just can’t do it. I need to have some kind of personal contact — a quick joke, a non-consumer query, a smile,something that acknowledges our respective selves.

Mind you, this is not noble of me. On the contrary, it’s often obnoxious and certainly narcissistic. Some checkout dude at Walgreens shouldn’t have to suffer through my idiotic banter just to help me alleviate my angst.

Breaking personal boundaries is more difficult in the anonymous super stores. These places breed anonymity. Once inside, we become consumers, shopping to some prescribed algorithm. And the employees have no investment whatsoever; they barely acknowledge you. Their only desire is to get out of there as quickly as possible. What do they need, not to mention want, with my anxious interpersonal invasion?

Perhaps there is a freedom to such anonymity. By agreeing that we’re just numbers to each other, we are left alone to do as we will — no need to pass moral, religious, or aesthetic judgement on others. You do your thing; I do my thing. And so it goes. There’s no need for things to get personal.

This is one thing I enjoy about politeness — it allows strangers to be strangers with the least amount of friction. Sometimes, we need things from each other or, in this crowded world, we bump into one another — a simple “excuse me,” “thanks,” or “please” makes the interaction run smoothly.

Still, I have this deep seated desire to break through these barriers, to risk judgement in order to enjoy a whiff of intimacy, however slight. In that moment, there is the possibility of wonder, of the heartfelt and the hilarious, the witty and the surprising.

But that’s not why I do it. My need cannot be justified by anything other than itself: anonymity freaks me out. It’s as though I need the world to recognize me, not just this body, but me. Perhaps if those around me see me as an individual — not as just another customer, consumer, or constituent — then I’ll be better tethered to the earth, less likely to slip into the ether unnoticed.

Ah, yes, this is it: anonymity smacks of death. And, egomaniac narcissist that I am, I believe my individuality will be enough to keep me alive. But only if everyone notices. TC mark