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.