We often talk about how privacy is “shrinking.” Consider these pieces in The New York Times (on tiny office spaces), The Harvard Business Review (on shareable data such as body metrics), and Slate (on the secrets of corporate "people") as examples. We use this metaphor of space, one that can shrink or grow, to conceptualize privacy, but we rarely talk about “growing” it.
How do you grow privacy?
“How do you grow a prairie town?” Robert Kroetsch once asked in a poem. His simplest answer was that “the gopher was the model,” because it could pop up and just as soon vanish. And if privacy is necessarily spatial, like a town, then, yes, I suppose it can come and go quite easily—or you come and go, and it stays wherever it is, sometimes where you might not find it again. If you’re one of the many teenagers who finally get their own room, you might lose it as soon as your parents have another baby. How do you shrink a private space? Easy: grow more people. And because space is finite and we can’t “grow” the space, not exactly (perhaps with the exception of a few built islands), you need to arrange for fewer people or for people who can’t claim it—thus war, colonialism, slavery, and real-estate bubbles or unaffordable housing. To oversimplify.
But is privacy necessarily spatial?
Two recent essays in The Walrus have been prompting me to think about this. One, by my friend Naben Ruthnum, is about thrillers and detective fiction and how these genres “reassure us that secrets are still possible,” even in the age of social media “when we can discover the unedited, intimate contents of millions of lives online” (70). The other, by Jonathan Kay, claims: “While pop culture continues to push the narrative that privacy is disappearing, the reality is very much the opposite: privacy protection has become a huge element of both engineering design and corporate branding in the technology industry” (26). According to Kay, our privacy is much better protected than we think, because multinational corporations such as Facebook and Microsoft are convinced that their businesses will grow faster if they have robust security protocols and privacy policies that let us believe we’re in good hands. For Kay, in the real world our secrets are safe, and only in the world of fiction do we really have to worry about private detectives, spies, and cat burglars rummaging through our underwear. But in both pieces, privacy is not so much a space as a feeling of security (this being the sense of privacy articulated after slavery in Dionne Brand’s answer to One Hundred Years of Solitude, At the Full and Change of the Moon) or a right to secrecy.
While I was reading and re-reading The Walrus, I also happened to be reading the wonderfully bizarre At Swim-Two-Birds, a 1939 novel by Irish author Flann O’Brien that raises some of these questions about privacy. It’s one of the tallest of tales—a whopper you might say—in which an undergraduate writer composes a novel that involves Irish legends mingling into a cowboys-and-Indians narrative that crosses the path of a devil and a fairy. Said writer often escapes from his bullying uncle into his imagination, and his writing—as escapism—is really for him an escape into privacy. This is the opening sentence: “Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.” This line is followed by many other similar “retirements.” I’m fascinated by how physical and temporal it is; he’s chewing, and it’s for “three minutes.” It’s physical, but it’s also beyond “sensual perception,” as if it were meditation, as if he were a yogi. His mind might be a conceptual space (as it is in Phyllis Webb’s metaphor of the “glass castle” or Simonides of Ceos’s “memory palace” and his "method of loci"), but it is also out of space and time. In theory, then, your privacy can be as big as you can imagine it.
Escapism is a management of the intrusions of the social world, the social world that is supposedly the real world in contrast with the world of fiction, illusion, or fantasy—whichever you prefer in this case. I don’t believe in this illusion vs. reality dichotomy. Our “real world” is absolutely full of illusion, fantasy, falsehood, deception, and error, and these make the world go round. Sometimes the only assurance is when you escape it into the mind, as when Descartes says, “I think, therefore I am.” Escapism is actually quite important, maybe more so than ever. It helps us minimize the social world, and it enables us to be a little more conscious and in control of the blend of fantasies in our lives—those of others (e.g., entertainment corporations, political parties, the “echo chambers” of social media) and our own. The social media networks offer privacy only so they can monetize your secrets for themselves. It’s your privacy but their property. Escapism can be a way out of this capitalism—if it’s not through more private property, or publishing, or buying video games or Game of Thrones seasons or any of a million other entertainments, activities, acquisitions, and options in general.
Ruthnum’s essay suggests that fiction alleviates real-world anxieties (such as homophobia surrounding the trial of Oscar Wilde, alleviated by horror stories of his time) (70). It doesn’t only create an anxiety for the reader’s enjoyment of suspense, and then relieve it by resolving the tensions of the plot. It doesn’t only pose a fictional problem and offer the fictional solution. Ruthnum’s most compelling observation is that many thrillers today are in fact “near-techless thrillers” (69). They are set before the Internet, or people don’t have their smartphones, or their equipment is broken. The “tech” is basically a spoiler; it stops a tense plot from developing.
What if that’s the problem with our real world? The inverse of Ruthnum’s observation is that, in our tech-full lives—despite true threats such as cyberbullying—we are usually contending with our own banality. Although plenty of escapism is banal (e.g., most television, even today in its “golden age”), the thrillers that Ruthnum reads are not. The writer’s imagination in At Swim-Two-Birds is not. They are fictional solutions to real problems.
A banal world is a small world, whether real or illusory, social or private. Growing our privacy might be simple: shrink the banality—the sheer boredom, the predictable behaviours, the conformism of body and mind. Set aside the phones and their clocks. Be unplugged and alone more often, but not by shrinking the world of real people. Don't covet your neighbour's house. Sometimes I feel that there is nothing more banal than a mortgage.
Now if I could only stop binging on Game of Thrones...
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “How Do You Grow Privacy?” Publicly Interested, 17 August 2016, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
If professors followed the lead of their students and posted anonymous evaluations of students as a rejoinder to RateMyProfessor.com and the Yik Yak app, how would evaluations change—and how might students react?
Before I try to answer these questions, let me tell you a story. It happened one night long ago to a very new university teacher: a rare ice storm on the northern prairies. Rain and sleet fell as temperatures dropped just as steeply (if that’s how ice storms work), and in the morning everything outside was perfectly and beautifully protected under a hard coat of ice—the trees, the sidewalks, and all the porn that could be spread out over his four-door sedan (or hers, of course).
Who, for the sake of a prank, carries around a dozen glossy skin mags to pull apart in an ice storm?
Somebody did. It was that wintry time of year when students, steaming after getting bad grades, feel only the heat of the moment instead of a chill. Some of them flame their profs or post hot-headed criticism on social media. Others prefer revenge served cold.
I never found out whether the prankster did have some connection to said teacher, but the prank happened to have a lot in common with the implicitly sexual evaluations that students can put on RateMyProfessor. The rubric there identifies “hotness” and “easiness,” both potentially sexual terms, both implying a “meat market.” Chilli peppers rate the hotness, so the food-sex-commodity implication is pretty clear.
How foolish I would be to suggest that profs are the porn stars or nude models of their students’ fantasies when the opposite is the better known problem, but RateMyProfessor definitely shows that the problem is not one-sided in an era of social media. Some students, for example, have used the Yik Yak app to post a long and anonymous series of sexual and insulting comments about three people who were team-teaching their large class.
Teachers are public figures—in that their classes are sometimes large enough to contain strangers (this being one of Michael Warner’s criteria of a public), or include students who are practised enough at disappearing into the crowd that they aren’t recognized by name—and a lot of students would freak out (as many teachers do) if they realized that any of their mistakes could be witnessed by 45, 185, or (God forbid) 600 or 1,000 people. Rampant video recording on cell phones does threaten a lot of bullied kids with terrifying publicity. Teachers are not immune either.
Friends of mine have quit their teaching jobs because of how scary they (the jobs) can be. Besides a politician’s, what other job demands the worker to submit to mass anonymous evaluations—and, in the teacher’s case, with a frequency measured in months rather than years?
Politicians are not the only ones with their jobs on the line. In another example, an untenured instructor was fired on the basis of a potentially baseless allegation. RateMyProfessor calibrates the student-teacher relationship and gives the powers of anonymity and of the crowd to students. Although anonymous evaluators have no fear of reprisal and can therefore speak freely and disburden themselves (a plus), hate speech and libel become much more likely when no one has to anticipate results other than the satisfaction of an insult with no comeback. Some people I know monitor their RateMyProfessor comments and invoke their lawyers to compel the site to remove its more egregious claims.
If profs had RateMyStudent.com, I wonder what changes in the power differential would occur. Free of consequences, anonymous and commenting alongside each other, would professors gang up, indulging in sexual innuendo and cyberbullying too?
Protective anonymity would be more difficult to maintain for the profs, of course, because there are so few of them compared to their students. If a prof dissed a student’s understanding of the poet John Keats’s concept of negative capability, it might hint at the identity of, obviously, a literature prof. (Or the prof could have been anybody, and “negative capability” was just meant to describe the student’s academic prowess.)
Would students react differently to anonymous online evaluations?
They might take them less seriously, but even if the evaluations refrained from bullying or outright shaming the evaluations would still be crucially public. Students do some assignments, such as in-class presentations, in public, but most assignments are remarkably private: intended for one reader (in addition, I hope, to the writer's future self). Private assignments are ideal vehicles for trial and error, hence the essay's link to the French verb essayer, "to try." If students were evaluated in public and anonymously, I think that students would be even more anxious about conforming, and education would be whole magnitudes more intimidating and miserable for them. We would lose many more of them to attrition. Many would not enroll at all. Many might also be justifiably concerned that public evaluations might be read by prospective employers. Whether this possibility would lead students to work more diligently is a question up in the air.
The anonymity of online feedback is probably less threatening than the threat of publicity, but it is also problematically less meaningful. I know that when I get anonymous feedback from 45 students and one of them has a negative comment, I sometimes dismiss it precisely because I have no way of knowing whether the claim is valid. When a student writes, “It’s impossible to get an A in his course,” I can point to (though the student can’t see) the fact that several students got As. But if a student were to write, “I worked really hard on that assignment and got hardly any help or feedback,” the comment is almost meaningless—to me—unless I know who wrote it and can put it in context. I would want to change my teaching if I realized in retrospect that I had misinterpreted a student as a slacker who was too shy to ask for help.
Sometimes knowing our students and their mitigating circumstances can help us to be fairer. Blind justice might not be so just. To generalize: Specificity is good. Generalization is bad.
And yet RateMyProfessor is so full of generalizations that an individual comment could often apply to almost anyone else on a bad day. Whew! So the site’s usefulness is not so much in its particulars as in the prof’s overall score.
Especially easiness. Frank Donoghue writes: “The ‘easiness’ category provides students with the perfect instrument for boosting their GPA. Simply choose the instructors with the highest ‘easiness’ ratings and your grades are bound to improve.”
In the United States, the grade that most college students get is already an A.
This is also the grade that most professors want and were accustomed to as students.
We profs should therefore be able to relate to our students, and I wish more students who post anonymous online evaluations would try to relate to us, too. Most of us, I hope, offer mainly task-based criticism so that students take it less personally: less ego inflation and less crushing of self-esteem. We have to try to be considerate. Our students know who we are—and quite possibly where we live.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "RateMyStudent.com." Publicly Interested. 4 Feb. 2016. Web. [date of access]
Should there be ads on a blog called “Publicly Interested”? The question started to nag me as soon as I decided to start a blog. I can imagine how bpNichol or another concrete poet might begin to approach it, before doing something way more creative:
I mean this in different ways. Ads on the web are a nagging presence, and, of course, they add up—to big numbers of ads, to big potential revenue, and to big distraction. I want this blog to be not only readable, with the zen of print, but also commercially neutral (not that print is). Sadly, I assume that eventually the nice folks at my web-hosting service are going to ask me to pay them to keep this blog free of ads.
My questions are about the extent of my right or privilege to keep it free. Is this blog mine? It’s free of both ads and costs at the moment, so was it a gift? Or is it a loan? Is it public or private space? Let’s say for a moment that it’s mine, as some of my private property is—perhaps not something I paid for, but something I made: not something I made on campus, but perhaps a painting or, better yet, a diary.
A diary is the epitome of a private text, but, in Publics and Counterpublics, Michael Warner observes that it does address a "partial stranger" (125): the diarist's future self, a future public. Interpreting a scene of totalitarian surveillance of a diarist in George Orwell's 1984, Warner also suggests that, in an era of social media, our privacy will ultimately be policed (127). The concern for me is not as it is in 1984, where government surveillance is a major problem. Although Orwell remains compelling, I worry more about corporate surveillance and the link between profit and privacy.
In my book on stardom in poetry (if you can believe it—I want to quote that phrase again: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”), I remarked upon an admittedly obvious tendency of celebrities to relinquish their privacy for the sake of gaining and maintaining a public, as many of us now do on social media such as this blog—arguably part of a trend toward diminishing privacy and increasing publicity.
Or you can think of it as the total opposite: not a drift to publicity but to privacy, if privacy is inseparable from the idea of private property.
Your privacy includes your own self and your own space, and in a capitalistic society it competes with the private sector: wanting a house to be your private space, you have to offer more than another person or corporation offers for it. You can also profit from it. Let’s think of that diary. It’s not for profit, unless you’re Elizabeth Smart publishing what Dee Horne calls a “novel-journal.” With By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept in the 1940s, Smart effectively went public with her journal, which is what bloggers do today—but not necessarily with money involved.
Seemingly different from privacy, publicity is to some extent one’s publicness or condition of being public. In the sense of advertising, publicity is also the incursion of the private sector into public space, which is a space defined partly by its not-for-profit status. Ads on “my” not-for-profit blog would be publicity. As soon as we allow ourselves to talk about “privacy” and “the private sector” in the context of social media, privatization can overtake privacy. "My" privacy might be coterminous with someone else's profit.
An arising concern is that attempts to address and thereby create a public, which is the precondition that Warner explains in Publics and Counterpublics (82, 129), will become a privatized activity—very different from standing on a soapbox in a park (insofar as parks remain public), calling out to others with poems or slogans, or blogging. The difference is that the activity is, at least by proxy, selling something.
So I wonder if my web-hosting service would ever censor me for advising people not to look at or click on ads if this blog had them. Presumably the provider can take down a blog for any of the mutable reasons that it or its future parent company might dictate. In the future, “my” blog could be part of a sale, which suggests that my writing is a labour worth something to the provider, as it is to a publisher controlling a copyright.
The recognition of a "labour" involved is both a blessing and a curse. Its recognition as work or a work can be nice, but it means my writing is co-opted into a discourse in which we create property through labour, when I want it to be exist as something other than a commodity. Or, if it must, in addition to a commodity—there's the problem of the "add" again.
So, the fact that I wrote this blog is one explanation for why the provider gives or lends me this public-private space, free of ads. The content, however, is unimportant to the provider, because (in theory) the very fact of my writing is the advertisement. There's an emoticon for this: not knowing how to feel about it, but definitely not good.
Adding to this feeling, the commodity here, for you, as a public, is what Richard Posner calls the "credence good" (49) of informed opinion. A web-hosting service will care about that opinion only rarely, such as when it breaks a law or is somehow harmful to the company. Posner wouldn't care much either, partly because he thinks that this kind of public engagement lacks accountability (7) and quality control (2), in that I am my own editor and am basically just moonlighting from my job as a prof.
If this blog were mood lighting, it would be dark but not romantic.
The irony is that, as a prof, I am a professional writer, but at my publicly funded university (and at others) professors are increasingly expected to be publicly engaged beyond the public of the classroom—to help rationalize public funding of universities—and in so doing we might also engage in the private sector and thereby seem to justify Posner's market-based analysis of our own decline.
In effect, much of my work is also yours: your taxes (and tuition) help to fund my university, and my publications help the corporations that own presses and journals to make profit, very little of which comes to me directly. Whether I like it or not, this blog has a part in what is, in effect, the public-private partnership of today's university.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "No Ads on 'My' Blog." Publicly Interested. 25 Nov. 2015. Web. [date of access]
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.