Personal (Search) History – The New York Times


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Illustration by Erik Carter

One afternoon, riding the bus in downtown Montreal, Madelyne Beckles swiped open her phone to browse the web. She caught sight of her most recent mobile searches — ‘‘Snooki diet,’’ ‘‘Miley Cyrus’ sex tape,’’ ‘‘Bruno Mars songs’’ — and found this collection to be absurd but unexpectedly poignant: an unvarnished glimpse into the meanderings of her mind. Beckles, a 23-year-old visual artist whose work explores her relationship to technology, took a screen grab and shared the image on Instagram. This became the genesis of her newest project, called Herstory: Every so often, Beckles pulls up her mobile search history and saves it with a screen shot. In one image, ‘‘Labiaplasty’’ is listed right above ‘‘Bethenny Frankel Instagram.’’ In another, ‘‘Dirty martini’’ appears a few searches before ‘‘Who owns the Mona Lisa.’’ (To preserve the integrity of the project, she says she deletes only items with typos.) Some of the images appeared in a recent art book called ‘‘Babe’’; the rest will appear, in the form of large poster-size prints, as part of a show in a Toronto gallery called Autumn later this month.

Beckles says she likes how this public display of her innermost thoughts, represented by her search terms, conveys an uncomfortable truth: that we are rarely as sophisticated and erudite as the versions of ourselves we publish online. ‘‘It is what I have actually searched, and it is how my mind works,’’ she said. She described viewing the images as ‘‘opening an underwear drawer of thoughts.’’

Beckles’s work is much more than a digital diary of her thoughts, though. She captures the perversity that characterizes most of our relationships with the Internet. We obsess over our self-presentation on social media, while constantly leaving traces of our true selves elsewhere, often without even realizing it. Call it ‘‘dark data’’: the trail of information collected by companies like Amazon, Seamless and Uber about what we really do in our free time, about our splurges and snack preferences — all those unsharable details that we rarely boast about on our feeds. On the surface, Beckles’s images reveal the inner workings of a woman who casually coasts between high and low culture. But underneath they serve as an expression of the sheer volume (and utter inanity) of the secrets we show to Silicon Valley’s all-seeing eye.



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