May 27, 2009KR BlogKR

The Creative Space Of Privacy

PBS Frontline is working on a documentary called Digital Nation, concerning our present moment in computerized history. The process of the project itself is fascinating, as the filmmakers are opening up their work for public consumption before they even finish the film. They’re posting rough cuts of video, soliciting ideas from readers, and blogging about their work while also covering digital news.

Recently, one of the filmmakers visited a Bronx public school where every child has a laptop. Kids being kids — and teachers being teachers — the Faustian bargain has inevitably shaped up as the following: the kids try to get away with as much as they can, and the teachers try to monitor the children’s activities as closely as possible. Onward to the block quote:

Ackerman has access to the laptop of every kid in the school through this program, and he can switch from one to another and watch what the kids are doing on their computers in real time. The sixth and seventh graders all have cameras enabled in their laptops, so not only can Ackerman see their screens, he can see their faces. He can push a button and see a seventh grade girl in social studies class two floors away, peering at herself in video, putting on lip gloss, fixing her hair. He can also communicate with her: to freak the kids out and remind them they’re being watched, he sometimes will take a picture of them (he can control their laptops remotely) in Photo Booth, or interrupt their IM conversation with his own message, telling them to get back to work.

We all take privacy for granted; rather, we all seem to take the “right to privacy” for granted. If anything, technology today means that we can hardly ever take privacy itself for granted. Digital Nation filmmaker Rachel Dretzin articulates her concerns while watching Ackerman prowl the digital hallways of his school:

Sure, the kids all know they’re being monitored, and they don’t seem terribly upset about it. After all, they’re in middle school, and the laptops don’t belong to them, so they have no real expectation of privacy. But there’s something about having access to a moment as intimate as someone else looking in a mirror that says volumes about how our relationship to privacy as a society is changing.

This change has obviously been in the works for decades. Ellen Ullman tells an anecdote in her memoir, Close to the Machine, about a client asking her to install keystroke monitoring software in his company’s computer system, so that he can monitor the office manager under his employ — and who has been under his employ for twenty years, and even babysat his children. Turns out the client has no real motivation for doing this other than it’s now technologically possible. “I’m just curious,” the client says. “All those years she’s been out there running things, and now I can find out exactly what she does.”

“So you want to know about Mary just because you can?” I asked.

William Banner swirled his ice cream around like a kid, then licked a big wad off his spoon. “Hmm. That’s it, I suppose. The way I look at it, I’ve just spent all this money on a system, and now I get to use it the way I’d like to.”

Today we assume that privacy is almost a sacred right, even if it’s hardly ever possible anymore. Centuries ago, says Patricia Meyer Spacks, it was just the opposite. Privacy was eminently possible — you know: all those dark candlelit corners, juicy diaries, and furtive assignations — and as such it was terribly feared. From marital infidelities to national revolutions, drastic occasions are not planned in the open. They’re discussed and worked out in private.

So, too, is art. Or is it? Traditionally the work of art has been the sweetest fruit that can fall from the tree of the individual artist’s private agony. Nothing is as private — and unsearchable — as the hard copy journal. A very close second would be the first draft of just about any literary text. Not only are first drafts discarded or worked-over for their poor craft, they’re also supplanted by a version of literary creation that raises a veil of privacy between writer and narrator, between author and character. We are glad this is so; it is the mark of a finished text. We care not to learn the private pettinesses of our writers; we care to learn what they think and feel of life. The more real a narrative voice becomes, the less exposure we have to the individual’s private thoughts that provoked the newly imagined world represented in his or her text. In short, readers benefit from the intense solitude that accompanies literary composition. Readers benefit from writers enjoying great spaces of privacy.

But this, too, is changing. As the very work behind Digital Nation attests, creativity is becoming much more collaborative. Dretzin and her colleagues are benefiting from the collective input of their potential audience by revealing their work ahead of time. They’re forfeiting some of their own privacy in an attempt to get greater access into many of our private habits and experiences. This clearly benefits the Frontline staff, but I wonder if it will, paradoxically, end up selling future Frontline viewers a bit short when they see the finished product. Sure, the documentary might be well done and successful, but will it ever really reach the heights of a great piece of work if the people behind it don’t endure some good old private agony?

Maybe they are, and they’re just not showing us.