Banksy? Andy Warhol? John Leland? Graham Greenleaf? John Hilvert? Neal Gabler?
Dear Quote Investigator: The rise of the hacktivist group “Anonymous” reminded me of an artwork I saw by the graffiti provocateur Banksy. He (or she, or they) created a pink television set with a screen that displayed this message:
In the future everyone will be anonymous for fifteen minutes
Lasting pieces of art are always ambiguous, and I am not certain what motivated Banksy. Maybe the proliferation of pseudo-celebrities has flattened the notion of fame. Thus, in the future each person will become an interchangeable semi-star.
Perhaps the loss of privacy from ubiquitous cameras, internet tracking, and DNA fingerprints means each of us will be able to retain our secrets and autonomy for only fifteen minutes. Possibly each one of us will join some protest group like “Anonymous” but only for a quarter of an hour.
Naturally, Banksy, himself or herself, has been anonymous for much longer than fifteen minutes. Can you determine who first spun Warhol’s famous prediction to create this new statement?
Quote Investigator: As the questioner suggests, this saying is a twist on a famous pronouncement attributed to the Pop artist Andy Warhol concerning the velocity of modern fame:
In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.
The earliest instance found by QI of a saying similar to the one in Banksy’s artwork was printed in the music magazine Spin in 1989. It appeared in a hostile profile of the singer and songwriter Richard Marx by the journalist and critic John Leland. In the following text the term “the 90s” referred to the near future [SPRM]:
A success story for the 90s — when everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes — Marx is rock’s invisible man. No one has sold so many records and made so little impact on the culture. Even his press kit, the expensive, glossy cardboard portfolio of a major star, reads more like a corporate annual report than the story of a life.
The passage above is about the transposable and indistinguishable elements of fame. By May 1996 an interesting variant quotation was circulating that was aimed at another topic: the computer-mediated invasion of privacy. This maxim had different implications because “cyberspace” was substituted for “the future”. The periodical “PJ: Privacy Journal” reported on the saying and credited a legal academic [PJGG]:
“In cyberspace, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes.”
Graham Greenleaf, associate professor of law at University of New South Wales and member of the New South Wales Privacy Committee in Australia.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Cyberspace is often associated with the future, but it is also being implemented in the present. In August 1996 Greenleaf published an article in the journal “Privacy Law & Policy Reporter” and he employed the saying again. In a footnote he acknowledged two individuals who had inspired his remark [JHGG]:
It has been said with appropriate irony that ‘in cyberspace, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes’.  Cyberspace presents both an unexpected opportunity for private (and even anonymous) communications and transactions over distance, and the potential for a panopticon, surveillance more extensive than any previous form of social control.
 I stole this quip from John Hilvert, via Andy Warhol and who knows who else …
In 1998 the social critic Neal Gabler deployed a version of the adage in his book “Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality” while discussing the increase in the number of marginal demi-celebrities [LMNG]:
Indeed, the profusion of celebrity was so overwhelming that it also seemed to void another oft-quoted dictum. In the future everyone would not be famous for fifteen minutes, as Andy Warhol had prophesied. In the future, it seemed, everyone would be anonymous for fifteen minutes.
The adage was further disseminated in a New York Times interview with Gabler [NYNG]:
In the fame-driven future he envisions, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes, but Mr. Gabler, looking every bit the cultural critic (Armani black, stubbly salt-and-pepper whiskers), doesn’t seem overly worried. “Anyone who writes seriously about American culture is not in danger of becoming a celebrity,” he said.
A photo dated September 15, 2006 that was taken by Peggy Archer at a show in Los Angeles captured Banksy’s TV art piece [PABK]. In 2008 an interview and profile of the actor Dennis Hopper at the website of The Telegraph (UK) included a picture of Hopper adjacent to Banksy’s modified TV [DHBK]:
Upstairs, he poses for a final shot next to a sculpture by another friend, the elusive British graffiti artist Banksy: a TV set sprayed with the words, ‘IN THE FUTURE, EVERYONE WILL BE ANONYMOUS FOR 15 MINUTES.’
In 2010 the adage credited to Greenleaf was given as the solution to a puzzle in the book “Cracking Codes & Cryptograms for Dummies” [CCGG]:
Puzzle 247: In cyberspace everyone will be anonymous for fifteen minutes. Graham Greenleaf
In 2011 a New York Times article about a fashion show in Milan, Italy invoked Banksy [MFBK]:
Banksy said it best: “In the future, everybody will be anonymous for 15 minutes.” The British graffiti artist and prankster’s inversion of the weary Warhol dictum about fame comes as a tonic in an age of self-promotion and so-called social media.
In conclusion, the expression pre-dates the piece created by Banksy. Indeed, more than one variant was in circulation before 2000. The phrasings and the meanings were fluid. The statement by Neal Gabler seems to be the closest precursor to the words painted on the TV.
[SPRM] 1989 December 1989, SPIN, The Invisible Man by John Leland, Quote Page 13, Volume 5, Number 9 Published by SPIN Media LLC. (Google Books full view) link
[PJGG] 1996 May, PJ: Privacy Journal: An Independent Monthly on Privacy in a Computer Age, Editor Robert Ellis Smith, Quotable, Page 2, Providence, Rhode Island, (Verified on paper)
[JHGG] 1996 August, Privacy Law & Policy Reporter, The inevitability of life in cyberspace, [Privacy and cyberspace: An ambiguous relationship] by Graham Greenleaf, Volume 3, Number 5, Prospect Publishing. (Online archive of Privacy Law & Policy Reporter) link link link
[LMNG] 2000 (Copyright 1998), Life the movie: how entertainment conquered reality by Neal Gabler, Page 160, Vintage Books. New York. [Reprint of Alfred A. Knopf 1998 edition] (Amazon Look Inside)
[NYNG] 1998 December 8, New York Times, At Lunch with: Neal Gabler: Roll ’em: Life as a Long Starring Role by Ralph Blumenthal, Page E1, New York. (ProQuest)
[DHBK] 2008 September 25, The Telegraph (UK), Dennis Hopper: the ride of his life by Sheryl Garratt, Telegraph Media Group Limited, London. (Accessed at telegraph.co.uk on January 27, 2012) link
[CCGG] 2010, Cracking Codes & Cryptograms for Dummies by Denise Sutherland and Mark Koltko-Rivera, Page 316, Wiley Publishing, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey. (Google Books preview)
[MFBK] 2011 January 19, New York Times, Fashion Review: Designers Anonymous by Guy Trebay Page E1, New York. (New York Times online archive) link