Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
According to the title, the comic is about opinions on internet privacy in general. Six positions are offered as options. Four of the positions are tagged negatively by the author by their subtitles alone: the Crypto Nut, the Conspiracist, the Nihilist, and the Exhibitionist, all of which have negative valences in contemporary English. That the viewer is encouraged to identify negatively with these four positions is further encouraged by the content of the panels, as those characters are depicted either as having such boring lives that they have no need for privacy (the Crypto Nut, the Nihilist), or as being crazy (the Conspiracist, the Exhibitionist).
A fifth position, the Philosopher, is tagged somewhat ambivalently by the author: Megan, or possibly a look-alike, is depicted as boring her interlocutor, yet in the title text, the author admits that he is usually the Philosopher. Also, "Philosopher" in vernacular English is neutrally valenced, potentially having the ability to expound either wisdom (sophia) or sophistry. It is also a synonym for Sage, the sixth position. As the author condones his own movement from Philosopher to Sage, he thus indicates that the Philosopher is to be viewed negatively, even if it is a tempting position to hold.
The title of the sixth position, the "Sage", is positively valenced in contemporary English, and the author in the title text states that once he obtains a "burrito" – i.e., a "real" thing, he switches from the Philosopher to the Sage. The internal evidence presented thus far therefore is entirely consistent; the author encourages the reader to identify with the Sage. However, the choice of Beret Guy to represent the Sage undercuts this somewhat as Beret Guy is frequently seen as bizarrely disconnected from reality in a way that is maladaptive (e.g. 1030: Keyed) and overly obsessed with food to the point of creating trouble and potential self-harm (e.g. 452: Mission).
By presenting five negatively tagged positions followed by a positively tagged sixth and final one, the author follows a rhetorical commonplace of listing and refuting a number of positions one by one, concluding with the favored and best one, which is not refuted and should be accepted both on its own merits and by virtue of being the last one standing. The comic therefore implies that no other (significant) positions exist.
Having completed the rhetorical analysis of the comic, we are now in a position to understand the meaning of "Internet Privacy".
Panels #3 and 5 directly reference the American NSA. Panel #5's "exhibitionist" also references Google, but the characters in the panel appear to be NSA agents (one wears an official cap and they are viewing the exhibitionist on an official, government-looking monitor). Likewise, the focus of the "Nihilist" is that the joke is on the people who gather the data, rather than those who are subsequently able to make use of it (such as Facebook's users rather than "Facebook" itself; i.e., Facebook's employees and, by extension, its advertisers). The content of the actual data is only mentioned in panels #2, 4, and 5, and in each panel, it is suggested that it is meaningless or trivial. The Sage underscores the notion that any data known about him does not bother him, and therefore must be meaningless or trivial. The reader is thus encouraged to believe that it does not actually matter whether others discover personal data about him/her.
The comic is therefore what social theorists call reductive, because it reduces the range of possibilities of "Opinions on Internet Privacy" to an artificially and simplistically narrow subset; in this case, individuals concerned with government or corporate agencies using data that they have gathered on individuals, and the futility of worrying about such things. The comic does not admit the possibility of other "opinions on internet privacy" – namely, that individuals might have legitimate concerns with governmental or corporate uses of their data, let alone other individuals' access to data that is assembled and distributed by corporations such as Facebook. The comic likewise does not consider the possibility of individuals having more interesting lives than the characters depicted, and therefore very real concerns about their privacy due to the activities that they engage in that are potentially more career limiting (should they be discovered) than obsessing about cryptography or eating a burrito.
The comic is "functionally" reductive, as opposed to "intentionally" reductive, because the reduction is the function or effect of the comic for readers who read it straightforwardly. There is not enough internal evidence in the comic to maintain that the author intentionally excluded other viable opinions on internet privacy; it could be that they are just not on his radar. For example, we do not have enough information in the comic to claim that the author is against civil rights; it could be simply that he doesn't often think about them. Likewise, it would exceed the evidence of the comic to claim that the author believes that schoolteachers who use the internet to facilitate legal but frowned-upon sexual behaviors should lose their jobs if they are found out due to internet privacy breaches; it could be that the author simply hasn't bothered to worry about these matters if they don't affect him personally. This adjudication – whether the comic is "intentionally" reductive or not – may only be made on the basis of external evidence; that is, data known about the author from sources beyond this comic.
An alternative interpretation of the title text is that it is not Randall speaking his own opinion, but instead represents Beret Guy's (i.e. the "Sage's") perspective. Randall may indeed have some concern with internet privacy, which would be consistent with the views on open-source security expressed in 463: Voting Machines, for example. In other cases, such as 1490: Atoms and 1419: On the Phone, the title text has been used as additional, farcical statements made by characters in the strip, rather than as Randall expressing his own views. Under this interpretation, Beret Guy would be prone to philosophizing about security, but then be easily distracted by a burrito; this is consistent with Beret Guy's general behavior.
Additional observations about the comic follow.
- The Philosopher - the intellectual who likes to talk about the topic, often boring those around him who don't think or worry much about privacy.
- The Crypto Nut - the one who goes crazy with security, even for things needing none.
- Since a large percentage of people and companies present in the internet don't have the ability or intention to do strong cryptography, the crypto nut's communication is limited to talking with other crypto nuts - which indicates cryptography as a topic. A real crypto nut will encrypt not just the important stuff because otherwise the attacker (in this context, assumed to be a government agency, network operator or corporation) will know which mails contain stuff that was secret enough to warrant encrypting, thus giving them information about whom he's doing secret business with.
- The Conspiracist - the one who sees super-secret data-gathering agencies everywhere.
- The (data) warehouse mentioned is the Utah Data Center which seems to be of impressive size. The punchline is created by taking the iceberg and warehouse analogies literally.
- The Nihilist - Nihilists believe that life lacks purpose and meaning. Someone who espouses this philosophy would think that a life spent spying someone else's meaningless life is hence doubly lacking in meaning.
- The Exhibitionist - Assumes people are invading his privacy, and using it to show off.
- This type is predominantly associated with twitter, but other social networks as well. This archetype is humorously combined with a sexual exhibitionist, who gets a sexual rise from the knowledge that others are spying on him/her.
- The Sage - Seems to know the difference between the real and the imaginary - or does he?
- The monologue alludes to a scene in The Matrix in which Cypher arranges with the evil machines to become a traitor.
- The Sage is apparently immediately satisfied when he has food and prosperity. He does not need privacy or other democratic rights as long as he does not individually suffer from their absence.
The release of the comic on this date could be to coincide with the premiere of South Park's 17th season on the same date, which starts with an episode (Let Go, Let Gov) in which Cartman discovers that the NSA has been spying on him.
The title text is to suggest that he enjoys burritos so much that being handed one even while philosophizing (his natural state) would stop him in his tracks to eat the burrito, thus becoming a pseudo-sage concerned only with the burrito at the exclusion of the topic of internet security. The burrito is later mentioned as a way to stay connected to the real word (compared to the world of art) in 1496: Art Project.
- Opinions on Internet Privacy
- The Philosopher:
- Megan: "Privacy" is an impractical way to think about data in a digital world so unlike the one in which our soci--
- Ponytail: So bored.
- The Crypto Nut:
- Cueball: My data is safe behind six layers of symmetric and public-key algorithms.
- Friend: What data is it?
- Cueball: Mostly me emailing with people about cryptography.
- The Conspiracist:
- Cueball talks to Megan.
- Cueball: These leaks are just the tip of the iceberg. There's a warehouse in Utah where the NSA has the entire iceberg. I don't know how they got it there.
- The Nihilist:
- Megan: Joke's on them, gathering all this data on me as if anything I do means anything.
- The Exhibitionist:
- Cueball is watching a surveillance console, Officer Ponytail stands behind him.
- Console: Mmmm, I sure hope the NSA isn't watching me bite into these juicy strawberries!! Oops, I dripped some on my shirt! Better take it off. Google, are you there? Google, this lotion feels soooo good.
- Cueball: Um.
- The Sage:
- Beret Guy and Cueball sitting at a table.
- Beret Guy: I don't know or care what data anyone has about me. Data is imaginary. This burrito is real.
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This comic could be meant to satirize those who trivialize the opinions of privacy advocates. I doubt many reading this comic would assume this is either a fair or exhaustive list of opinions on internet privacy as it is highly unlikely that the reader him/herself would hold any of these opinions. 00:05, 1 October 2013 18.104.22.168 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
Sometimes I think all my burritos are imaginary. Nathkingcole (talk) 11:55, 25 September 2013 (UTC)Nat.
This may be pointless, but Kudos to 22.214.171.124's edit. Saibot84 (talk) 13:13, 25 September 2013 (UTC)
- This may be offensive, but Redeemer's edit was both excellent and necessary. 126.96.36.199 13:26, 25 September 2013 (UTC)
- I wouldn't call it offensive (outside the language); it's simply opinionated. Thanks Saibot84. 188.8.131.52 13:37, 25 September 2013 (UTC)
- Fail on both counts, from me (for Redeemer's contribution), as neither excellent nor necessary. Only in the light of that does 63.etc's edit (who has just ninjaed me with an edit conflict... hi there!) actually make any sort of sense. But what do I know? I'm just an IP, and you can probably find that I'm not even in the US, from that...
- Redeemer's meta-analysis of Randall, even if false, was still an exemplary display of critical thinking that I've found to be surprisingly lacking with XKCD fans. If Randall is anything like the person I think he is, he would appreciate such an alternative perspective. Additionally, it was an absolutely necessary defense against a straw man-like simplification of an all too legitimate concern for privacy rights. I will agree that Redeemer's edit would have been more appropriate here as a Discussion item rather than an edit to the Explanation, but this differing viewpoint should still be heard. 184.108.40.206 15:26, 26 September 2013 (UTC)
- Can we just have a proper explanation, instead, please? Let's say something like: there's those that overthink the situation, those that over-do it, some overestimate the problem, some overestimate other problems, some enjoy the idea too much and some just enjoy their food more. Eh? Any good for ya? I'm sure it can be tweaked, to taste. 220.127.116.11 13:41, 25 September 2013 (UTC)
- Done. Or at least a start. -boB (talk) 14:04, 25 September 2013 (UTC)
I have an opinion, but I'm keeping it private for now. -boB (talk) 13:24, 25 September 2013 (UTC)
One mention of the NSA, one mention of Google. I'm not sure how Randall's politics are relevant, or how he's excusing privacy concerns, and the "explanation" says a lot about the interpretation and US-centric perspective of the poster without adding to the comic. Unless it was a deliberate parody of the conspiracy panel, not appropriate, dude. (And I'm a Brit - I definitely didn't vote for any political party in the states. But hello, Echelon.) Fluppeteer (talk) 13:37, 25 September 2013 (UTC)
- The comment was so off the wall I think it pretty much had to be parody, in keeping with panel 3. -boB (talk) 14:04, 25 September 2013 (UTC)
I wonder why some Americans consider that world-wide issues like on-line privacy have to be related only to U.S. politicians. 18.104.22.168 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
I'm pretty sure the explanation of the Nihilist isn't right. In my opinion Randall jokes that if all of your actions are meaningless (the nihilistic way of thought) then the same applies to all your data. 22.214.171.124 14:51, 25 September 2013 (UTC)
Thanks to whoever classed this place up by deleting that vitriol. 126.96.36.199 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
I'm a fan, but I'm disappointed. Don't tell me I didn't "get it" though. I "got it" very well. I love XKCD very much, but not today. I would like to thank Saibot84 and 188.8.131.52 for their heartwarming support. A Reddit post about the edit can be found here: My protest against XKCD's underhanded defense of the NSA -- Yours truly, Redeemer 184.108.40.206 16:37, 25 September 2013 (UTC)
- I'm genuinely concerned about internet security issues, and I'm entirely sympathetic to your perspective, Redeemer. But, whatever Randall's background or motivation, this comic stands alone in poking fun at extreme positions on the subject. I don't believe it either trivialises the argument or makes a reasoned statement about an acceptable position - none of the panels show a "normal" perspective. Whether or not Randall intended it to be, there are many more sources of privacy concerns world-wide than the NSA, and many reasons to hold an opinion on NSA network analysis other than support for a political party (which to me rarely means support for every position that they hold). Let's stick to explaining the comic, not meta-analyzing Randall's motivations for posting it. This is not the place, no matter how your perspective may colour your interpretation of the message behind the comic. Fluppeteer (talk)
- TL;DR, but the current NSA incidents are a source for Randall's ideas here. It should be mentioned. Incomplete done tag by me.--Dgbrt (talk) 22:52, 25 September 2013 (UTC)
- Too impatient, can't be qualified to comment. Randall mentions the NSA in one panel. The issue isn't whether the NSA is a concern, it's that the NSA is not the only source of internet privacy concerns or media scares; if not mentioning it "excuses" the NSA/current US Government, singling it out "excuses" other organizations (other governments and surveillance bodies, Google, Facebook, network operators...) - and Randall himself mentions Google. Don't assume this is just about the NSA. Even if that was Randall's inspiration, it's not the only context for the comic. There have been repeated incidents regarding GCHQ, for example.Fluppeteer (talk)
- You must have some very strict guidelines for TL;DR. It's just a paragraph! Orazor (talk) 05:37, 1 October 2014 (UTC)
- I also can claim "web scraping, network administration and security [as] my professional area of expertise" (only currently on personal time, hence this pseudo-anonymous IP, which I know wouldn't fool the NSA), but I think you just don't get it, Redeemer. Nor do some of your Reddit contributors. Not wanting to reddit (by a name I'd jump into there with, that is), I won't even attempt to disabuse you of your opinion, however. But you do not vandalise key areas of wikis with such personal venom. Bad show for doing so, and stick to your blogs. Anyway, for myself: Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2, line 358, second half. 220.127.116.11 23:07, 25 September 2013 (UTC)
- "These foils have all a length"?18.104.22.168 23:22, 25 September 2013 (UTC)
- "The rest is silence." according to Shakespeare-navigators.com. Much as I'd love to be educated enough to know that by heart.Fluppeteer (talk)
Is it just me, or is it actually Danish instead of Megan in the Nihilist panel? The hair looks too long to be Megan's. Sciepsilon (talk) 00:09, 26 September 2013 (UTC)
I have to disagree with "Since a large percentage of people and companies present in the internet don't have the ability or intention to do strong cryptography". Strong encryption is extremely available to 100% of people and companies. It is public and free to use. Most significant companies use VPN's and encrypted hard drives. It is just untrue to suggest that strong cryptography is not available to anyone. 22.214.171.124 06:57, 26 September 2013 (UTC)
- That is the difference between availability and ability. While the necessary software is freely available, people don't understand how to use it (no ability), even don't want to learn how to use it (no intention).
- Also in "strong cryptography" I would require not only algorithms to be strong but also authentication schemes. The current SSL system uses Certificate Authorities, which are broken by design, thus not "strong" in the sense I was meaning it.
- While good companies using VPNs and encrypted hard drives is a good ideal, 90% of the companies do without them to save the money involved (performant hardware + setting up). Additionally they do not use encryption when communicating with others (e.g. their customers). Think of all the websites that cannot be accessed with HTTPS (including this one). -- Xorg (talk) 10:14, 26 September 2013 (UTC)
- Strong encryption in form of VPN is available to everyone and I believe lot of companies are using it. Also HTTPS is used relatively often, although many sites lack it, only use it for most important areas or only for administration for performance reasons. Thats all. Most importantly, no way of encrypting email is simple enough to be actually used by public, and I seriously doubt that majority of instant messaging is point-to-point encrypted (I know for sure Skype chat aren't - they may be encrypted on wire but keys are available to their servers).
- Note that while centralised solution of Certificate Authorities is less secure that decentralized ones, you can still get usable security in SSL ... unless you need it for HTTPS. The fact that NO HTTPS page is signed by multiple authorities is the real problem. -- Hkmaly (talk) 23:56, 26 September 2013 (UTC)
At the present moment, what exactly is incomplete in this explanation? When Dgbrt added the incomplete tag, it was because "it should be mentioned that the NSA incidents are a source for Randall's ideas here", however the very first line of the explanation reads "Randall parodies some of the reactions to Edward Snowden's revelations of widespread intrusive surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency" which pretty much covers it. Furthermore, that line was already in place when the incomplete tag was added. Am I missing something? 126.96.36.199 19:59, 26 September 2013 (UTC)
- Wait, what? That'll teach me to read the comments page rather than checking changes to the explanation. Randall's comic is about reactions to *all* internet privacy concerns. It explicitly mentions Google. Why is everybody assuming that the NSA is the only source of issues here? Sure, there have been recent revelations about the NSA. And GCHQ (indeed, by Snowden). And Google. And Facebook. And every country introducing mandatory network filters. And my employers (and anyone else's with a firewall data sniffer). And quite probably a lot more I don't know about. Can we please stop putting words in Randall's mouth and having a blinkered focus on the NSA as though it's the only source of problems when the comic itself mentions more concerns than that. I didn't think it was my place to remove the incomplete tag, but I now support the assertion that it's inaccurate, rather than incomplete. (Sorry; I was annoyed enough to register here in order to try to balance this bias! Perhaps someone with more seniority can paraphrase?) Fluppeteer (talk) 21:52, 26 September 2013 (UTC)
- NSA is not only source of issues, but it's definitely the most currently debated one. Even mentioned companies are currently debated in context of their collaboration with NSA. -- Hkmaly (talk) 23:56, 26 September 2013 (UTC)
- The NSA scandal is not the most topical example. Ed Snowden's leaks about the NSA and GCHQ (including GCHQ spying on G20 Summit attendees) happened primarily in May, four months ago. The UK government has been proposing opt-out traffic inspection for porn filtering since July; one of the Australian political parties has made a similar proposal this month. The current Miss Teen USA was the subject of a recent privacy scandal, though webcam related rather than about data inspection. A media watchdog report about Google's expectation of privacy in gmail hit the news in August. Facebook drew criticism for security issues in August, and the inability to manage sex hate issues at the end of May. The NSA relationship with Google, Facebook et al. as part of PRISM is certainly an issue, but not the only, and arguably not greatest, source of concern for many about those companies and other organizations. The Snowden case is, in many places, old news, and - while it may have been reported solely in the context of the NSA in the US, it certainly hasn't been in the UK (other than regarding the issues of his asylum). Don't get me wrong - I'm happy to call out the NSA, and it's not like I avoid Google et al. I just believe that it's blinkered to attribute the comic solely either to the Snowden case in general or to the NSA in particular. I'd be happy with "Randall parodies some extreme reactions to internet security concerns, such as those raised by Edward Snowden's revelations about widespread intrusive surveillance by the NSA and other agencies." Is that reasonable? Fluppeteer (talk) 18:57, 27 September 2013 (UTC)
- O.o I'm not sure I entirely agree with the analysis about what Randall wants us to believe (I'm called a "nut" about a number of things without taking offence at any of them, for example), but I'll admit that the current version removes my objection that the explanation was overly-biased in exclusively referring to the NSA. So thank you, Davidy22 (edit war aside), and I'll pick my battles. Fluppeteer (talk) 13:19, 30 September 2013 (UTC)
- I didn't write that analysis, I just stepped in when another user was autoreverting it for being "too long." It is a pretty good bit of text though. Davidy²²[talk] 14:44, 30 September 2013 (UTC)
- Whoops. Thank you *and* 188.8.131.52. Fluppeteer (talk) 18:44, 1 October 2013 (UTC)
I can't be the only xkcd reader that's driven crazy by the fact that "data" is used as a singular throughout this, can I? I mean, data isn't imaginary, data are imaginary!! 184.108.40.206 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
- Oh dear. I'll go and get my pedantry circuits checked - I should have noticed that. See how discussing politics and current(ish) affairs contributes to my mental decay? Fluppeteer (talk) 18:44, 1 October 2013 (UTC)
- Unless you talk about Lieutenant Commander Data, and I think he would be offended if you call him imaginary. -- Hkmaly (talk) 08:55, 16 October 2013 (UTC)
Can someone photoshop this: ⋈ onto the conspiracist's neck? thanks, 220.127.116.11 04:18, 21 November 2013 (UTC)
I tend to over-analyze stuff and I have the opinion that this amount of explanation should exist about everything. However, as a user (even though I dislike that word), that's too much text. There should be a more succinct explanation, and the rest of it hidden somewhere but available by a link, button, tab, etc. 18.104.22.168 01:15, 5 November 2014 (UTC)
- Please remove bias
Can somebody please rewrite the last section which is extremely biased against the comic, seeming to attack the ideas presented and suggesting that Randall doesn't care at all about civil rights. It violates the idea of a neutral explanation and is seen to be pushing the writers point of view. This bias is especially evident to a person who disagrees with this point of view (because, seriously, who cares if the govt. knows about your dinner plans or your big break up or even your love of perfectly legal porn. They don't care. If you do think that they're interested in that, then you are vastly overestimating your importance). Can somebody who is better at writing please rewrite that section with a more neutral (or at least ballanced) tone? --Imamadmad 20:09, 14 January 2015 (UTC)