Are Clear Bags a Tool of the Surveillance State?

Our affinity for sharing our curated lives in URL seems to have migrated to IRL territory with the recent buzz about clear handbags. These totes, which are made of vinyl, are the analogue attempt to blur the private-public divide. You can have an Instagram-worthy still-life shot and then show off your perfectly curated life on the street. In both cases, it’s a fabrication of pseudo-authenticity—or the version of ourselves that we want the world to see.

In Marshall McLuhan’s seminal 1967 book The Medium Is the Massage, he predicted that digital technology would lead to a climate of oversharing as the relationship between “our claim to privacy and the community’s need to know” becomes blurred. “The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions—the patterns of mechanistic technologies—are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous electric information retrieval,” he wrote.

Photography via Imaxtree

“Mechanistic technology” was a term McLuhan used to describe physical objects. Today, he might suggest that the clear-plastic handbag represents a contamination of our need to share—or to appear as if we are sharing. Perhaps the normalization of sharing online made way for the clear-handbag trend, creating an Internet phenomenon that now exists in the physical world.

Clear handbags were popularized in the mod ’60s, but this year, major design houses—labels ranging from Céline to Prada to Building Block to MM6 Maison Margiela—have debuted their own versions of the bag. Rimowa took the trend a step further with its see-through suitcase collaboration with Off-White’s Virgil Abloh (an aesthetic decision that surely delights TSA agents).

Photography via Imaxtree

The added security benefit—that anyone can see into your bag—hints at a more sinister plot line behind the trend. After yet another school shooting in the United States, some schools created a policy requiring students to use clear-plastic backpacks. Major sporting events and protest marches have also implemented policies that require participants to carry clear bags. Where’s the balance between privacy and surveillance?

Amelia Vance and Sara Collins from the Future of Privacy Forum, a non-profit organization that researches the intersection of privacy and technological innovation, emphasize that while privacy is important, it shouldn’t get in the way of necessary school safety measures. However, Vance and Collins, who provide legal counsel to the group, suggest that the policy of clear backpacks is both too broad (a school doesn’t need to see the entire contents of a student’s bag) and not broad enough (a knife can be concealed in a textbook).

The fact that the same object—the clear handbag—is simultaneously being used as a tool of surveillance and a fashion statement makes me pause. The intention of the wearer of a clear bag becomes important: Is he or she being forced to use it or opting in willingly? In the latter case, what’s the benefit? Is it worth giving away a fragment of your privacy for another projection of yourself? Or is it enough to simply take another Instagram photo?