How our distrust of Internet services that seek to archive our digital existence gave rise to disposable message services like Snapchat and Gryphn.
In its earliest forms, communication over the Internet acted as a supplement to other kinds of communication, a sideline channel for arcana and speculation too marginal to concretize in more palpable forms like books and newspapers. As the architecture of the Internet has become involved in more and more communication, and has supplanted the old forms of concrete cultural truths, an anxiety has arisen: A fear that we are commemorating the margins while missing the center column, immortalizing the supplement while letting go of the main text. This anxiety has bred mistrust of Internet services like Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail, which create huge archives of ephemera, whose timeless existence in the server-sphere is directly opposed to the fleeting conditions in which those original thoughts were sent out.
A new group of devices and services have sprung up to address this discomfort, rendering ephemerality unto the ephemeral in an attempt to put back into balance the relationship between form and content that most of our Internet interactions distort. Snapchat was among the first to popularize this approach to Internet communications, creating a platform where archiving itself is taboo, something allowable only for the most trusted of friends. A number of similar apps have flourished alongside Snapchat, using the anti-archival approach to communication as an asset.
[An] anxiety has bred mistrust of Internet services like Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail, which create huge archives of ephemera, whose timeless existence in the server-sphere is directly opposed to the fleeting conditions in which those original thoughts were sent out.
Gryphn offers a variation on the Snapchat model targeted toward corporate users, allowing users to send text, image, and video messages to one another in an encrypted format that ensures they can't be downloaded or saved to the recipient's phone. Screen capturing is disabled and messages can be set to self-delete after a certain period of time. The Washington D.C.-based group is targeting companies who want a comparable level of security and control over the employee communications without buying them Blackberry's and paying monthly bills for service. Wickr offers a similar service, promising "military-grade encryption" for messages, while allowing users the ability to set specific timers for when each message will be deleted from a recipients app.
A group of researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are working on making the temporary exchange a part of the digital widgets themselves, designing devices meant to dissolve or self-destruct after use. Lead by materials scientist John Rogers and funded in part by Darpa, the group has been able to create electrical implants that draw power wirelessly and are based on water soluble circuit boards whose rate of rate of degradation can be set. The devices seem to have the most promise for medical uses, with time-controlled implants that don't need invasive removal procedures once a patient's started healing.
It's a paradox of our times that most of these devices seem to have some direct or indirect support from the military. Gryphn's board of advisors includes a former Navy Lieutenant, and Wickr describes its service as operating at "NSA top-secret level encryption." We have become accustomed to accepting that military and government uses of technology must come shrouded in secrecy and privacy controls, but technology available to everyday people must be commercialized in a way that depends on cataloging user's information.
There may well be some pathos that connects the privilege of using digital wonderments like computer phones to the expectation that such an experience be paid for with invasive surveillance, regardless of whether the services and devices have already been paid for by the consumer. The capacity to not just deliver information, but also take it, seems intimately connected to our subconscious understanding of all our mobile computing devices, and adding time constraints or blocks to data collection reveals the superfluity of most of our uses of these devices. In many ways, the text message is the optimally superfluous use of digital technology, encouraging users to communicate first and think second, to record a moment and choose someone to transmit it to before thinking about why they should really want to transmit it.
The unacknowledged context of using an always-connected computer phone is that there is some larger, unseen authority figure piecing together some narrative of our lives based on the fragments we send through them, and this witting consciousness of being watched helps define how we use these devices in the first place.
In mobile computers, transmission is as close to immortality as we can come, and so the compulsion to continue sending out marginalia and the obscure crumbs of experience in our daily lives becomes a manic thrill of imagining them becoming something other than ham sandwiches and bad puns playing off stereotypes and social coding that's been given to us from movies and television shows and media distribution bullhorns that turn an isolated thought into a self-replicating Internet joke.
The unacknowledged context of using an always-connected computer phone is that there is some larger, unseen authority figure piecing together some narrative of our lives based on the fragments we send through them, and this witting consciousness of being watched helps define how we use these devices in the first place. It is not surprising then that, after the Snapchat and Facebook Poke sensations reside, what will remain will be a handful of corporate encryption tools that lets workers pay more of the bill for the work phones. There is only so much of our own ephemeral qualities we can bear to be conscious of at once. It is almost worth paying to offload the carriage of that weight to someone or something else, real, imaginary, or somewhere in between.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.