I’ve studied and taught dystopias. I’ve made the case to students about the lessons of the various classics of dystopian fiction, including the ever-present Big Brother, to use George Orwell’s term for it, that keeps each dystopian society running smoothly: someone is always watching you. We’ve turned it into somewhat of a joke these days, with reality TV shows called “Big Brother” allowing us to voyeuristically “spy” on houseguests and make them compete for money (Hunger Games, anyone? Or rather, The Running Man?). But we also use surveillance in the name of “security,” a euphemism I think Orwell would have both appreciated and abhorred. As he wrote in a letter, “the ends will justify the means,” for better or for worse.
We know this, we live it, we are more and more aware that we don’t have much privacy, especially online. We try to teach it to our students, we try to remember it ourselves. But what impact does this surveillance environment have on the very young, those who are not yet online, not yet watching reality TV, not yet sharing every moment of their lives on social media?
I’ve written before about how I’m trying to teach my children responsible digital citizenship when it comes to their online identity. But I wasn’t prepared for a question from my 4-year-old son the other night before bed: “Can we get cameras for the house like the ones we have at preschool? So you can watch me all the time?” I was floored. I tried to explain to him that I respected him and his sister’s privacy and their autonomy, that they were allowed, in fact needed, to have lives that were separate from myself and their father. I told him that I trusted him and his sister, and that this was one of the ways that I showed them that trust, as well as respect. This is all very heavy for a 4-year-old, and he didn’t quite understand why it was ok to have cameras watching him all the time and preschool and not ok (or even desirable) at home.
This is a good point. Of course, the problem is that we, as a society, don’t trust anyone anymore. We want cameras everywhere, and if we don’t have anything to hide, then we shouldn’t be worried about it. There is a great deal of hypocrisy from parents in particular who are aghast at the level of surveillance in our society who then track their child’s every move with secret GPS and cameras. But it has continued to disturb me that my son has already learned that he is always being watched, and in fact has normalized it to the point of missing it when it isn’t there.
I am starting to think that things like “selfies” or oversharing on social media is one way that kids are trying to subvert the surveillance culture they have grown up with, in very perhaps (at best) rudimentary and (at worst) crude ways. These instances, at least, are somewhat in the child’s control, and they are carving out some small space for themselves. The popularity of Snapchat, the app that immediately deletes (or doesn’t) your pictures and messages would also seem to indicate that kids want something to be controlled, in terms of impermanence. But that kids as young as my son and beyond can only imaging resistance through those very tools scares me.
Maybe my peer-driven learning classes are even more radical than I had originally thought. Radical insofar in that I tell the students that I trust them and that I don’t need to monitor their every move or activity to know if they are “doing their work.” Well, I don’t just tell them, I enforce that pledge, that trust. My 100-level students, when faced with even moderate levels of freedom don’t know what to do with it. They demand, almost, constant monitoring because this is what they have been used to their entire lives. And we are often all too happy to give it to them, through draconian classroom policies that do nothing but tell the students that they are not to be trusted with their own educations.
These are all just rough, preliminary thoughts. But my son’s innocent question one night as he got ready for bed has profoundly shaken my thoughts on surveillance, trust, maturity, and pedagogy.