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The magnetic strip on your credit card is silent. It is nondescript. It is there. And yet it holds a wealth of knowledge. Your prepaid toll transponder hangs unassumingly from your windshield, quietly relaying information between your vehicle and a data storage facility somewhere in the far-off United States desert. You have a smartphone in your pocket. All of these and an infinitude of other simultaneous whirring processes comprise Matthew Kirschenbaum’s idea of screen essentialism—that is, a sort of ease with which we ignore all that is happening behind the pleasant, glowing façade of the omnipresent “screen.”

Consider the fact that interactions within the stock market used to be recorded and displayed on ticker tape, a physical paper medium that literally went on for miles. In purely logistical terms, the modern trend towards screen essentialism does away with the hassle of combing through a waterfall of information to locate a single data point. But now, the idea behind this benign example can be expanded to the entirety of human knowledge, and increasingly, human capability to monitor. Screen essentialism, in its ubiquity, has allowed for information storage and inscription so huge and comprehensive that it reaches far beyond the personal computer. Every tap of a key, scroll of a mouse, every contact, leaves a trace.

Is there anywhere to hide? Given time, there will be pieces of evidence, certain ones and zeros zapped onto certain magnets that certain people will want, or need, to have deleted. Kirschenbaum is illustrative in his examples of bygone data destruction procedures—but these are, for the most part, being rendered obsolete. The modern digital age is yielding “Greater and greater storage capacity [which] will only serve to further dematerialize the media as their finite physical boundaries slip past the point of any practical concern.” Those who have access to the stored data thereby wield unprecedented power over the system of people who subscribe to it—namely, all those who remain the least bit attached to “the Grid.”

In a sense, Kirschenbaum presents this idea neutrally. He is simply commenting on one of the conditions we adopt by accepting our current notion of new media. But there is something unmistakably sinister to this image. Anytime we carry out some inane task—Kirschenbaum cites the simple swipe of a subway card—we subject ourselves to an intense system of scrutiny that extends far up the chain of command. Presumably, for those whose very existence is contested by the law, this should prove a daunting fact of life.

But screen essentialism is being embraced, both in theory and in practice, by such activists as DREAMers, many of whom are attempting to queer the political realm surrounding undocumented activism by displaying their “illegal” status in a public sphere.

For many DREAM activists, this fear of the panoptic gaze of the world beyond the screen is not only of no concern—it is something to be acknowledged and rejected. Indeed, Cristina Beltran points out that “more and more unauthorized youth have chosen to reject secrecy in favor of claiming membership through a more aggressive politics of visibility and protest that includes cross-state pilgrimages, hunger strikes, bus tours, rallies, sit-ins, and other forms of direct action.”

Visibility. While we might limit these activists’ actions to a precise lineage of physical events, Kirschenbaum would remind us that we are seeing the issue through the eyes of the screen essentialist. Every contact does, in fact, leave a trace. By making a choice to be visible, DREAMers are flaunting their message—namely, themselves—in front of a system they know doesn’t allow for them to exist. Beltran cites various other examples of ways in which DREAMers have “come out of the shadows.” Many have made public statements in blogs and on YouTube, crossing into the boundary of true screen essentialism, embracing and at once challenging the “consensual hallucination” of digital spaces as private spaces that Kirschenbaum cites. By doing so, they are warping the approach to the political as seen through a digital window, creating a new environment for protest and raising awareness by developing new media to suit their message.

This sort of activism holds deep implications for both the political struggle at hand and the framework of screen essentialism that it relies upon to make its point. First and foremost, by making themselves seen, undocumented activists are propelling themselves into a political fight that existed for years without them. Practically, this accomplishes two things: (1) it shows unity among an incredibly diverse group of individuals, who from this unity derive strength, support, and passion for their collective cause, and (2) it puts faces to a struggle that many Americans only know by the evening news. This process, which Beltran describes as a “queering” of the political activism landscape, doesn’t rely solely on traditional methods of mobilizing change. It incorporates these techniques—petitions, lobbying—into a new perspective through which to view the problem. By doing so, it both captivates attention and encourages action.

In the context of new media, this statement challenges the overarching mentality of blind acceptance. When presented with knowledge of the framework of the modern digital world, of mass storage and proliferation of personal data, the ubiquity of capture, our own accessibility to those in positions of authority, many find themselves not ignoring the facts, but rather complacently abiding. I am not issuing a call to action; rather, I am showing that action against these mechanisms is both doable and effective. To throw a kink into a massive, grinding machine takes stamina and substantial determination. But when it is in place, the cogs will turn on an angle.