Analog Hansel, digital Gretel

Illustration by Alexander Zick of Hansel and Gretel via The New York Review

And what if Hansel had a smartphone, or Gretel a social media account?

They did not awake until it was dark night, and Hansel comforted his little sister and said, “Just wait, Gretel, until the moon rises, and then we shall see the crumbs of bread which I have strewn about, they will show us our way home again.” When the moon came they set out, but they found no crumbs, for the many thousands of birds which fly about in the woods and fields, had picked them all up. Hansel said to Gretel, “We shall soon find the way,”, and he took out his smartphone, turned ‘locations’ on, and showed it to Gretel, who was busy sharing pictures of the trees, butterflies and mushrooms to her Instagram friends. Then they started walking back.

The irony of the digital life is that while we keep leaving crumbs behind us in all our online interactions, they are almost instantly picked up by the custodians of our data, the many thousands of birds flying about in the big-tech woods and fields. And while they are not plucked out so as to get us lost, we easily lose our way thinking that it’s not a big deal, that we’ll still find our way home. The crumbs twinkle in the moonlight, but they’ve already been extracted and used for the benefit of others whom we know nothing about. In fact, we know nothing about the crumbs either, except that they are ours and that we left them there. Some scholars talk about the ‘problem of the two texts’, two different digital records associated with the crumb-sprinkling users. We can read one, but not the other. In the analog world, knowledge is shared. In the digital, knowledge is disjointed, there are those who can read and lift the crumbs of others, while the rest keep scattering unknowingly to the benefit of a faraway elite.

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