In the Future Everyone Will Be Anonymous for Fifteen Minutes

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.

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