I try to keep a fairly well kempt online persona. My Facebook pictures don’t get a lot more incriminating than the odd Solo-cup-in-hand candid and a couple unflattering shots of my blindingly white belly basking on sunlit shores. With the exception of strangely undeletable Amazon reviews written in my prepubscence, I haven’t attached my name to many deeply embarrassing causes, message boards or (as yet) police reports. But thus far my vigilance hasn’t extended to my activities immediately offscreen. Perhaps, it should.
In a distinctly Orwellian turn of events, last month it was reported that the Lower Merion School District, near Philadelphia, may have been spying on its students. They seem to have used webcams concealed in school-issued laptops that network administrators could secretly activate. While some form of remote activation software is a fairly standard security feature on school-owned computers, it generally goes no further than tracking a computer’s activity or location.
The school district would have blithely continued its institutionalized espionage had it not accused one of its students of “engag[ing] in improper behavior in his home,” citing a picture taken with one of the concealed cameras. (Take note: If you’re going to accuse someone of illicit activity, try not to reveal that you’ve been illegally creeping on them in the process.) While we can only speculate on what constitutes “improper behavior” in a teenager’s bedroom, the school district finds itself in a whole thicket of unsavory issues: wiretapping, the Fourth Amendment, child pornography and enraging the American Civil Liberties Union, to name but a few.
Yet deplorable as the district’s actions may be, it seems to me that there’s some irony here. Our generation is obsessed with digital self-projection, and with its necessary complement — people peering at us through cyberspace. Chatroulette, which in four months has gone from a Russian high-schooler’s quirky brainchild to a network that connects, at any given moment, upwards of 35,000 souls, epitomizes our love of online exposure. While parsing through a succession of bored college students, lechers and nude body parts is hardly appealing in real-life, somehow situating the interaction online deprives it not only of the threatening social (and legal) implications, but also of the stigma of responsibility.
The question for the Lower Merion School District is — at least philosophically — what makes one computer-to-computer peek different from any other?
The key difference, it seems, is consent — the friend request accepted, the webcam trained on flatteringly-lit features. But online anonymity and proliferation blur the line between consented relationships and unwelcome prowling. This uncertainty, which privileges real-life privacy while negating it online, has seeped into everyday language — casual Facebook-stalking is acceptable procrastination, but having a flesh-and-blood stalker is grounds for police intervention. Paralleling this divide between on- and off-line mores is the ever-increasing impossibility of escaping from technology and its implications. The collision of these trends occurs somewhere in southeastern Pennsylvania.
The Lower Merion district teenager’s “improper behavior” was originally intended to be private, one presumes; the school censured him for airing it to them (albeit unknowingly), and he and his parents, in turn, have now made the case a national news story. Something no one was supposed to find out about is now something everyone can speculate about — and if the first revelation (teenager to school district) was nonconsensual, the later incarnation (teenager and family to Associated Press) was quite the opposite. In fact, since I read about this young man in the online New York Times, this column — especially if you are reading it online — further proliferates the digital persona of someone whose original complaint was over his right to some privacy in the vicinity of his computer.
In early January, a “right to forget” law was proposed in France. It would allow Internet users to order that old information about themselves be deleted. While many have criticized the practicality of digital euthanasia, there is something unsettling about the separate lives led by our profiles and accounts, whose births, acquaintances, habits, and ultimately deaths are not necessarily linked with our own (as Kate Maltby ’10 noted in her column yesterday.) Attempting to rope them back in seems a natural response towards unruly offspring. But by seeking to re-merge them with our physical selves, we risk hamster-style infanticide — why make babies if you’re only going to eat them?
It’s our schizophrenic reaction toward privacy and fame that deserves attention, especially at this university, where attending naked parties is as easy as cramming into an anonymous Bass study corral, and bold social networking is accompanied by a paranoia of deeper commitment. The Lower Merion School District’s action may represent a retrogressive attempt by the old to subjugate the rampant cyberactivity of the young. But in this context, we should wonder if it is instead an ingenious, if pre-mature, anticipation of the future of ethical interaction.
I’d say more, but I need to de-tag some pictures of myself singing Kelly Clarkson karaoke while spilling unidentifiable liquid down my shirt. Just please don’t tell anyone about them.
Sam Lasman a sophomore in Berkeley College.