how youth find privacy in interstitial spaces
The NYTimes ran a piece today called Text Generation Gap: U R 2 Old (JK). (Note: the article is very American-centric – in the States, older folks tend to be texting illiterate.) The article begins with an anecdote of a parent shuttling around his daughter and her friend. They are talking and dad butts in and they roll their eyes. And then there is silence. When dad comments to his daughter that she’s being rude for texting on her phone rather than talking to her friend, the daughter replies: “But, Dad, we’re texting each other. I don’t want you to hear what I’m saying.”
First and foremost, the notion of “privacy” is about having a sense of control over how and when information flows to who. Given the structures of their lives, teens have often had very little control over their social context. In school, at home, at church… there are always adults listening in. Forever more, there have been pressures to find interstitial spaces to assert control over communications. Note passing, whispering, putting notes in lockers, arranging simultaneous bathroom visits, pig latin, neighbor to neighbor string communication… all of these have been about trying to find ways to communicate outside of the watchful eyes of adults, an attempt to assert privacy while stuck in a fundamentally public context. The mobile phone is the next in line of a long line of efforts to communicate in the spaces between.
At the same time, the mobile phone changes the rules. Texting allows people to communicate even when they aren’t at arms length or can’t arrange simultaneous interactions. Because texting happens silently, it’s far more effective as a backchannel mechanism than whispering. Codes are not necessarily about hiding from adults as much as efficiency; deleting sent/received messages is far more effective than codes.
Over the years, parenting has become more and more about surveillance. In this mindset, good parents are those who stalk their kids. Parents complain that their children ignore them when they’re in the same space, preferring their friends. When was this not the case? What’s different now is that there are fewer siblings/cousins running around to team up with. There’s less free time to just “hang out.” There’s no openness to go out after school and “be home by dark” (a practice that used to start in early childhood). With activities and scheduling and this and that, I’m always amazed that children don’t demand more time for friend time.
There’s an arms race going on: parental surveillance vs. technology to assert privacy. We aren’t seeing the radical OMG technology ruins everything stage. We’re seeing the next in line of a long progression. And it’s just the beginning. The arms race is heating up. As parents implement keyboard tracking, kids go to texting. How long until parents demand that companies send them transcripts of everything? What will come next? We are in the midst of the privacy wars and it’s not so clean as “where’s my privacy” vs. “kids these days are so public.” The very nature of publicity and privacy are getting disrupted. As kids work to be invisible to people who hold direct power over them (parents, teachers, etc.), they happily expose themselves to audiences of peers. And they expose themselves to corporations. They know that the company can see everything they send through their servers/service, but who cares? Until these companies show clear allegiance with their parents, they’re happy to assume that the companies are on their side and can do them no harm.
Generation gap and technology ruining everything stories will be forever more. These do sell and they are fun to read. Yet, for parents and teachers and other concerned folks wanting to get a clear perspective of what’s going on, it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, the intentions and desires aren’t changing… it’s just the architecture that makes the practices possible that is. The refraction of light is changing because the medium through which it is channeled is changing, but the light itself stays the same and to guide our children, we need to remember to pay attention to the light, not the refraction or the medium that’s causing the refraction.