Anonymous in the Age of Face Recognition Software

A review of: E.L. Chen’s A Safety of Crowds (in Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales. Edge, 2011).

By Derek Newman-Stille

E.L. Chen’s A Safety of Crowds explores the anonymity of modern society and the idea that one can be lost in a crowd and can lose oneself in a crowd of people. Chen explores two women who are mirroring each other’s lives in different versions of the same reality, both being stalked by the same man. Jan has scarred shoulder blades from where she one possessed wings. Jenna Crow still has her wings, but is flightless, using her wings as a vehicle toward celebrity.

Chen creatively explores the furthering of technology for tracking people and registering their presence. Cell phones are constantly broadcasting adds, offering to share photos of exciting events that occurred at certain locations, updating people on potential dating prospects in the area and their interests. People are bombarded with information.

For Jenna to hide, she creates a fan culture that all emulates her so that the face recognition software on cell phones will suggest that all of her fans are actually her: “We’re all Jenna Crow”.

Although marketed as a teen/ YA short story, A Safety of Crowds explores issues involving the public access to personal information and the increasing trend of youth to share huge amounts of personal information as well as the danger that occurs when people can readily find out details about a person’s personal life. Conversely it also explores the value and danger of crowds for producing anonymity and the potential loss of selfhood that can occur in anonymity as well as the loss of self that occurs with celebrity. This is a novel that reveals the contradictions of modernity and Chen does an excellent job of capturing the ambiguities of the modern age and the mixed response of both desiring celebrity and desiring anonymity simultaneously.

You can explore Edge’s website at and see this and other Tesseracts volumes.

Derek Newman-Stille

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