Dynamist Blog

The Transparent Society and Its Clueless Adult Enemies

When David Brin published The Transparent Society in 1999, surveillance was something other people did to you. Brin made the radical argument that surveillance was technologically inevitable--a notion privacy advocates found unthinkable--and that the best protection for individuals lay not in trying to limit the right to collect data on other people but in making sure that surveillance didn't become the privilege of an unwatched elite. Everyone should be able to watch everyone, including government officials; hence, the "transparent society." People hated that argument, because it accepted surveillance.

How 1999. Another approach is simply to ignore old ideas about privacy and make your private life public. In New York magazine, Emily Nussbaum argues that today's young people are doing exactly that and, in the process, completely redefining the idea of privacy.

[W]hat we're discussing is something more radical if only because it is more ordinary: the fact that we are in the sticky center of a vast psychological experiment, one that's only just begun to show results. More young people are putting more personal information out in public than any older person ever would--and yet they seem mysteriously healthy and normal, save for an entirely different definition of privacy. From their perspective, it's the extreme caution of the earlier generation that's the narcissistic thing. Or, as Kitty put it to me, "Why not? What's the worst that's going to happen? Twenty years down the road, someone's gonna find your picture? Just make sure it's a great picture."

And after all, there is another way to look at this shift. Younger people, one could point out, are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion. Every street in New York has a surveillance camera. Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

So it may be time to consider the possibility that young people who behave as if privacy doesn't exist are actually the sane people, not the insane ones. For someone like me, who grew up sealing my diary with a literal lock, this may be tough to accept. But under current circumstances, a defiant belief in holding things close to your chest might not be high-minded. It might be an artifact--quaint and naïve, like a determined faith that virginity keeps ladies pure. Or at least that might be true for someone who has grown up "putting themselves out there" and found that the benefits of being transparent make the risks worth it....

In essence, every young person in America has become, in the literal sense, a public figure. And so they have adopted the skills that celebrities learn in order not to go crazy: enjoying the attention instead of fighting it--and doing their own publicity before somebody does it for them.

As an old fogy, I find this behavior weird. Aside from the old-fashioned notion that some parts of life don't belong in public, I don't want to live in a small town where everyone knows everyone's business, and I wouldn't want my teenage persona following me around forever. But there is a certain kind of logic here.

The problem comes not from old-fashioned embarrassment but from adult policing. As Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and his colleague Officer Will Creeley write in the Boston Phoenix, colleges are using their speech codes to attack students for what they post on Facebook and other online sites:

Students, be warned: the college of your choice may be watching you, and will more than likely be keeping an eye on you once you enter the hallowed campus gates. America's institutions of higher education are increasingly monitoring students' activity online and scrutinizing profiles, not only for illegal behavior, but also for what they deem to be inappropriate speech.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, the speech codes, censorship, and double standards of the culture-wars heyday of the '80s and '90s are alive and kicking, and they are now colliding with the latest explosion of communication technology. Sites like Facebook and MySpace are becoming the largest battleground yet for student free speech. Whatever campus administrators' intentions (and they are often mixed), students need to know that online jokes, photos, and comments can get them in hot water, no matter how effusively their schools claim to respect free speech. The long arm of campus officialdom is reaching far beyond the bounds of its buildings and grounds and into the shadowy realm of cyberspace.

Like Nussbaum's New York piece, this is a must-read article full of specifics. As online communication erodes the boundary between private conversation and public speech, the repressive nature of speech codes is becoming more and more apparent. (Take a look at this scary example.) They are, in fact, designed to squelch free speech--to prevent students from saying what they think, from using irony or humor in ways that might be taken as offensive, and to police not just speech but, ultimately, thought itself. (I serve on the board of FIRE, which is a great organization that deserves your support. It's watching the watchers.)

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