Monday, June 28, 2010

Stay Where I Can See You

For a time when I was a toddler, my mother kept me on a leash during our city outings. It made perfect sense: I was quick and dumb and liable to run into traffic at any moment, whereas she had little mobility and poor eyesight. But leashes are frowned upon these days. Perhaps it’s that people find the image disturbing. Strapping your able-to-walk child into a prettified wheelchair however is still okay.

To the manufacturers that made my baby leash and harness, I would say, Can't you make a baby leash that looks a little less institutional? If they were more cute and trendy they might become a baby fashion accessory! [1]

We worry so much about perceptions, don’t we? Television is bad for young children. The image of the wee things sitting passively, and often too close, in front of the screen is shorthand for mediocre, absentee parenting and an under-stimulated child who’s not going to develop at pace. But if it’s a video going by the name of Baby Einstein, or Baby Mozart, then it’s a learning opportunity. And you wouldn’t want your infant to lack for those, would you?

Parenting has always been about fears and insecurities, of this I am quite convinced. They are just different fears nowadays.

In 1971, eight out of ten 8-year-olds were allowed to walk to school alone. Now it is fewer than one in ten. At age 11 almost every child used to walk, now it is down to 55 per cent and falling. [2]

If the issue is that we have become afraid for their safety, then why are leashes frowned upon? Perhaps the true nature of our concern is somewhat displaced. Perhaps fear for the child's safety is just as much fear of the great Outside. How will our child measure up? According to the broadly dominant Western rearing model, as parents we are supposed to always be there for our child and fulfil their every emotional and developmental need, which in turn is supposed to make them wonderfully balanced, secure and self-actualised beings, capable of handling themselves in complex social situations from an early age. Yet these adults-in-the-making are less and less often allowed to even leave the house.

A report published by the Children's Play Council in 1997 argued that children had become virtual prisoners in their own homes. [3]

But what if this is not so much about safety as it is about control?

In order to explain what I mean, I must first of all take a little detour. I grew up in Milan but also spent a lot of time as a child at my maternal grandparents’ place, in a small village 40 km outside of Mantua. The first thing I did when I discovered Google Earth, was to explore those old haunts from the air. When I wasn’t visiting friends or playing football in the street, there was one route in particular that I especially liked to take on my bike, so I followed that. It started here.

And then made its way east out of the village, past the football ground, past the railway tracks I had promised nonna never to cross, especially when the arms were down (but they would lower them far too early, and you could hear the train coming from miles away anyway),

along a long stretch of road that was flanked by several more houses than it is now,

turning east at the crossroads, and proceeding all the way to Magnacavallo.

In Magnacavallo they had a café with better videogames and a newsstand with a wider selection of comics. All of nine or ten years old, I’d be away most of the afternoon, and none of the adults in my family would know where I was. I wasn’t supposed to actually be there, granted, but I could have gone just as far in other directions without crossing the railway, and the fact that my broad whereabouts would be unknown for hours on end was acceptable, normal. When I first retraced those steps in my thirties by means of Google’s wonderful satellite images, I was frankly a little shocked at how far that was. And it felt perversely as if I was spying on my childhood self. I know what you did all those summers ago.

We can map these things now, we can visualise them in many more different ways, and with much greater precision and granularity. Have our perceptions of ourselves in relation to the Outside changed as a consequence?

Not that sneaky, minuscule GPS trackers are impossible to come by, but with kids growing more and more mischievous, outraged parents are demanding more options. At least that's the word passed on by Lightning GPS' Jason Lazarus, who has just recently decided to make its ridiculously small Spark Nano available to the public. You see, this here company has generally thrived on providing covert GPS trackers to military and law enforcement, but now even civilians are being allowed in on the fun. The device, which is obviously used to track whatever or whomever you wish, is about the size of a 9-volt battery and can easily withstand bumps, bruises and the occasional drink spill. Users who implant one can track the subject via the web […] or phone, and you can count on five solid days of continuous tracking when the rechargeable battery is topped off. It's shipping now from BrickHouse Security for $299.95. [4]

There you have it, a wonderfully literal image of helicopter parenting. And it doesn't matter that most of us would shudder at the thought, or that we would never do it – that these devices are available contributes to define contemporary parenting and wider social relationships in itself; it's an index of the reality we have to navigate. Besides, there are several instruments of surveillance and self-surveillance – ostensibly more benign in that individuals are supposed to engage in them willingly – which suggest that the Spark Nano is not an aberration but actually sits at one end of a continuum. There is Foursquare, for instance, the geosocial networking tool for mobile devices that allows users to connect with friends and update their locations in real time; or the similar but more family-centred Latitude, a Google application that enables users to keep track of each other’s whereabouts using ordinary cell phones as GPS receivers. Here’s an excerpt from a brief CBS video report on Latitude.

Father: It’s constantly a challenge to keep track of my daughters. They’re always on the run, they’re out with their friends. They’re now in their teen years, so they have more independence…

Reporter’s voice: And sometimes the parents don’t know where fourteen year old Jordan or sixteen year old Carly are hanging out.

So that’s the problem: keeping constant tabs on your children, whom have just been described as having some independence and who are already equipped with cell phones, but evidently cannot be trusted to respond to calls or messages, or keep you reliably informed in real-time of their plans for the day.

There are a couple more interesting moments in the video: the reaction of the parents when the reporter informs them that the girls would be able to block other users, i.e. them, if they so desire (the mother, evidently displeased: “Oh, really?” the father, in the form of a wonderfully awkward joke: “Don’t tell them!”); and later the suggestion that there are circumstances in which the girls might have an interest in knowing the parents’ whereabouts too.

So maybe it’s not quite as simple as parents wanting to keep a watchful eye on the children, and our kids are as much prisoners in their own homes as the parents are imprisoned by them: always required to nurture-on-demand (especially Mum, of course), always supposed to be in the picture themselves. And isn't the baby monitor actually a parent monitor, calling us to task? By the time the kids leave home, they have interiorised this need to know where everybody is at all times to the point that it’s become a reflex, and they’re ready to treat their friends that way too and evolve into fully geosocial beings.

What all these devices and applications underscore very forcefully is how our technologies of memory and communication are increasingly also technologies of surveillance, and that the relevant segment of the consumer electronics market is involved in an incredibly complex enmeshing of social attitudes and behaviours. As is almost always the case, I am not claiming to be immune to this. I can see the appeal of personal GPS devices, in spite of the fact that the question ‘where am I’ can be generally answered without reaching for one’s iPhone; and, more to the point perhaps, I’m no less anxious than the average parent regarding the whereabouts and well-being of my children. In fact this post was quite possibly inspired by my recent experience of sending Joseph off on his own for the first time to a football practice and then a game in the space of a few days, on both of which occasions I was very sharply aware of our un-tethering. However I do think we really ought to examine this enmeshing, tease out the strands that lead us towards the madness of planting bugs on the kids’ clothes, and reflect not just on the overt aims and operation of these devices, but also on their language and their imagery, and what they say about our culture. Take this picture for instance.

It’s a frame from Tony Scott’s 1998 film Enemy of the State, from a scene in which the NSA is attempting to track down and assassinate the character played by Will Smith. Now look again at the first image of my grandmother’s village above. Do you see it? It’s the cross-hairs, again. You can take it simply as a reminder that all of these technologies – hell, even the Internet – used to have military applications, and contend that it’s an insignificant, vestigial detail; or you can be a little more cautious, a little wary that the wholesale adoption of this visual vocabulary might have deeper psychological resonances, suggesting that perhaps our need to know, our need to see where our loved ones are at all times could also be an aggressive form of control – even when we turn it onto ourselves.


Philip said...

I warned about this sort of thing years ago, and reality duly proceeded to exceed satire.

Word Verification: chanler. No relation at all, even when drunk.

Iguana Jo said...

È un po' che mi chiedo com'è che nel giro di una generazione le cose siano cambiate così tanto.
Dopo aver letto questo post non so se sentirmi tranquillizzato o inquietato dallo scoprire che la mancanza di bambini da soli per strada è una cosa equamente distribuita in tutto l'occidente e non cosa prettamente italiana.
Pensando alla situazione locale mi rispondevo che molto dipende dal fatto che una volta i genitori conoscevano piuttosto bene (o almeno credevano di conoscere) l'ambiente in cui si muovevano i figli, mentre ora non è più così: la strada appena fuori l'uscio di casa è percepita come terra incognita - e quindi pericolosa - dalla maggior parte delle famiglie di mia conoscenza.
Ma ero convinto che nel resto del mondo le cose fossero diverse, legando il dato di cui sopra anche all'oggettiva riduzione di numero dei bambini in Italia, che alimenta il circolo vizioso per cui meno bimbi si vedono in giro meno ne vengono fatti uscire.

Per quanto riguarda le problematiche relative al controllo, beh… fino a una dozzina d'anni fa con il telefono chiamavi un luogo, ora invece chiami una persona.
Credo che poter di nuovo legare il "chi" al "dove" sia un passo quasi inevitabile.
Ma fai benissimo ad evidenziare i rischi e i potenziali abusi che questo tipo di tecnologie portano con se.

merc said...

I wondered about those fields and how many people over how many years they had produced food for people.
Then I thought about the cross-hairs and thought how they would apply if they were focused internally...brilliant thought provoking post again Gio.

hersam, yes I am.

Dougal said...

Interesting post, Giovanni; surveillance also raises all sorts of interesting questions about where privacy is, how we inhabit it.

I read a few months ago in the THES a report of a US study on teenagers' use of the internet and how older people's (ie all of us who came to the internet pre 2.0, I suspect) were struck by recklessness of their internet habits.

According to this report, many young people saw online spaces as private spaces in ways their parents don't precisely because home isn't one for them: your mum or dad can go through your things in your room, but they can't so easily do that on your Facebook account or whatever.

That these spaces of course aren't private at all is another issue. I like the way this post acknowledges the genuine concern and trouble that's now being exploited and hyped by those with money and political gain to make from it all.

Giovanni said...

I warned about this sort of thing years ago, and reality duly proceeded to exceed satire.

"Big Brother is cuddling you" is quite brilliant. I would take my hat off to you, but for the fear to reveal the bugging devices and satellite receivers I keep in it.

I didn't go into the wondeful overlapping of these technologies with those used by Corrections that you highlighted in your post - the image of the bracelet is possibly the one I find most disturbing of all.

Giovanni said...

I wondered about those fields and how many people over how many years they had produced food for people.

Hard to say how many people, but as for how long, I'd say twenty-five centuries. Currently they mostly produce grasses for cows, and the principal end product of that is Parmigiano Reggiano.

Jim said...

As a ten year old kid I spent a lot of time with friends and a machete cutting a maze in acres of gorse in the back blocks of Newlands now called Dress Circle. We were particularly proud of the spiked trap we dug in the main chamber. Our parents, kilometers away, knew nothing. As a father now I would not be happy if my child did something similar. The mortality of adulthood meets the invincibility of youth. As always we turn to technology, be it fires, moats, minefields or surveillance techniques, in the desperate struggle to keep ourselves safe.

Giovanni said...

@Iguana Jo

È così anche dalle tue parti, dunque? In via Risorgimento a Villa Poma non si gioca più a pallone da vent'anni, ma l'ho sempre imputato alla mancanza di bambini più che ad altre paure. In fondo lì la gente si dovrebbe conoscere ancora.

Le statistiche nel post si riferiscono al Regno Unito, qui la situazione non è così estrema anche se sicuramente si va nella stessa direzione.

stephen said...

Loved this post. This problem has bugged me for a long time too. I know I roamed far afield on bikes when I was a boy, and I've tried deliberately to trust Hannah a bit more than I feel comfortable with, which still isn't as much as my parents trusted me, but more than many of her contemporaries' parents would.

I am tempted now to retrace my old routes when I go to visit Dad in a few days, but I'm scared about what I might find -- ticky-tacky subdivisions, I expect.

Giovanni said...

I read a few months ago in the THES a report of a US study on teenagers' use of the internet and how older people's (ie all of us who came to the internet pre 2.0, I suspect) were struck by recklessness of their internet habits.

I meant to talk about this but it will have to wait for another post, however surveillance inside the home repeats much the same pattern I described here, except cyberspace becomes the Outside. And the same kinds of products are marketed for it, leveraging the same anxieties ("the Internet can be a big and dangerous place for children, but for the price of a phone call, it needn't be"). Comparing those two Outsides - also in terms of the studies and pseudo-studies used to support the idea that they are in fact so dangerous, and the language in which they are couched - is just fascinating. But, as I say, it needs a whole other post, there's just so much to talk about there.

Yvonne said...

Isn't that just so cool, Earth googling where you hung out as a teenager?

I did that some time last year. It's been almost 40 years, but the houses I lived in (in South America) are still there. I too was amazed by how far and wide I roamed.

As for helicopter parenting. I can't make up my mind whether it is because there are parents who are so focussed on what other people think of them, or whether they don't trust their kids to be able to do something on their own. I've seen kids who've barely been able to had in a school assignment or project that did not have heavy, overbearing parental involvement.

So sad to see a kid who has wonderful grades at school, but have little self confidence and couldn't find their own way home.

My kids have walked, biked and bussed to school. They smirked at those kids who had to wait for mummy or daddy. Unless when it rained, then they had no compunction invoking the spectre of the label of neglect parent potentially being attached to us. Sadly I couldn't even point out the consistenly fabulously healthy carefully balanced lunch boxes to counter that.

All 3 of my kids turned into really great confident young people who own all of the credit for whatever they do.

rob said...

So many of us struggle with this: the contrast between the freedom we enjoyed as kids, and the control we want- or feel we need- as parents. It's worth pushing the boundaries, for me. this has meant allowing- encouraging- our kids to do some things other parents have been vocally displeased about. It's also been about allowing the kids to have secrets: some private spaces- and more as they get older.
Things have changed, though, and it's not just "us". the world has changed, and our kids have, and our relationships with them have. Our kids talk to us in ways I would not have talked to my parents. Not that I was scared of them- they were blimin' pacifists! - but from respect.
On the other side: our kids tell and share with us stuff I'd never have told my parents. I don't know where that comes from, either.

noizy said...

"In 1971, eight out of ten 8-year-olds were allowed to walk to school alone. Now it is fewer than one in ten"

My youngest is one of those 1 in 10.

Giovanni said...

So is mine, but then it must be said that we live closer to the school than to our car.

I should have made more explicit that the figures in the post are from UK studies (I chose my sources on the basis of the intensity of the fretting, more than anything else). Here the children who walk to school in 2007 were a minority, but only just. The trend is comparable, however. (I saw a chart of Western countries from the walk to school campaign but can't find it right now.)

Iguana Jo said...

Beh, tra paesi e città credo ci siano ancora notevoli differenze. Nel caso di Villa Poma credo anch'io che la mancanza di bambini sia il fattore principale che determina l'assenza degli stessi dagli spazi pubblici che una volta frequentavano.
Nel mio commento mi riferivo però a Modena. Per quanto il numero di fanciulli sia nettamente calato la loro quantità relativa non impedirebbe di vederli spuntare in giro per strada. Dopotutto la scuola elementare dei miei figli è frequentata da più di 400 alunni, la maggior parte dei quali residente nei pressi del plesso scolastico.
Quello che salta agli occhi girando per le vie del quartiere è come la maggior parte dei minori che si vedono in giro siano figli di immigrati, che tra l'altro sono anche tra i pochi ad andare ancora a scuola da soli (ma qui faccio riferimento alle scuole medie, che alle elementari è obbligatorio - salvo eccezioni - accompagnare e ritirare i figli).

Se molto di questa situazione è determinato dall'ansia di controllo dei genitori, c'è anche da considerare che lo stile di vita degli stessi s'è molto modificato in questi decenni, allontanandoli sempre di più dalla vita nel quartiere. Per questo motivo parlavo di terra incognita riferendomi a quello che in realtà dovrebbe essere lo spazio cittadino maggiormente conosciuto da chi ci vive.
A questo aspetto aggiungiamoci la paura dello straniero in costante crescita e la maggiore attenzione che i media in generale dedicano alle sfighe che possono capitare ai nostri figli.
Il risultato sono tutta una serie di allarmi e incertezze che si sommano per determinare una percezione di maggiore insicurezza a cui si risponde limitando le libertà di chi ci circonda.
Si riproduce insomma anche nell'ambiente familiare uno schema sempre più consueto del nostro vivere civile.
Ovviamente - almeno dal mio punto di vista - l'uso di tecnologie che facilitano il controllo è un palliativo, che una cura costerebbe troppo, se non a livello politico (ma che, scherziamo?) almeno a livello di impegno personale.

(per la cronaca, i miei figli vengono accompagnati a scuola, che ce le abbiamo a oltre dieci chilometri di distanza. Ma stiamo pensando da un po' all'uso dei mezzi pubblici, almeno per quando andranno entrambi alle medie. L'ostacolo non è una fantomatica mancanza di sicurezza, quanto piuttosto il fatto che questo ci costringerebbe tutti a svegliarci almeno mezz'ora prima.)

Anonymous said...

Interesting. When I first came to Berlin in the mid-90s, most primary school-age children who could walked to school, some even cycled alone! Now though, you rarely see an unaccompanied 6 year-old on the street (I actually saw one yesterday, which set me thinking along just these lines). I suspect that the situation here is similar to the one Iguana Jo is describing in Italy; a prevailing perception of fear and uncertainty, created in no small part by the media, resulting in parents restricting their children's liberty. I doubt whether any of my friends with kids that age would let them out into the street alone these days.

stephen said...

A speculation on the one of the roots of our need for control -- in these days of more or less reliable contraception, we have fewer children, in whom we invest more, materially and emotionally. They are more completely ours. It's true that technology enables and encourages this, but the idea that children should be closely monitored and cared for predates cellphones and GPS considerably. Our grandparents left school (if they attended it at all) and took on adult roles very young indeed, and things have gone downhill for the last 100 years.

Apropos monitoring position via cellphone or other device -- any child with a gram of sense will simply deposit said device somewhere innocuous.

In fact I sense a business opportunity in charging a nominal fee, maybe $2 an hour, to mind phones and GPS receivers and provide some plausible movements. Could be a good income stream for indigent street people, as buying liquor for teens is in the States.

Giovanni said...

It's true that technology enables and encourages this, but the idea that children should be closely monitored and cared for predates cellphones and GPS considerably.

What I was trying to suggest in the post is that this control is an extension of the control that we exert upon ourselves, though, which is also heavily technologically mediated. Cellphones are instruments not just of surveillance but also of self-surveillance, handheld computers even more so. They ensure that we are always contactable, always present to our professional and social duties (which often blend into each other anyway), and there is considerable pressure for us to not only possess them but also carry them and leave them switched on at all times.

When Twitter offers to remind you via text if you haven’t tweeted in more than 24 hours, it’s a like a way for the user to control their future selves, force them to stay on the grid. It's like a parody of parental or friendly concern: gee, I haven’t tweeted in days - I wonder what happened to me.