February 20, 2003

My Public Self

Category: Anthropology — Biella @ 12:32 pm

My department as do many, have grad students go through this curious yet extensively effective (and somewhat tortuous) ritual of compiling a HUGE bibliography of works (about 100 pieces) for your qualifying exams. They tell you that compiling the list and reading it is way more important than the test itself, and damn those advisers of mine were SO on the money. You have about three categories (Theory with a capital T, mid-level theory, and then ethnographies or works in your particular subject matter). So, the reading process is magical and I mean magical in that sense that special things happen and it is not because you get to spend all this time reading but because all these unexpected connections congeal and form as you slog your way through all these seemingly different works. When you read some postcolonial reading of western science in India such as Another Reason by Prakash, alongside Bakhtin, Weber, Sombart, and Sherry Turkle, you get, some Weird Science. You are inspired in these strange ways to make connections that well, otherwise, would be impossible to forge in independence of each other.

I have not been in such a luxurious reading phase of my academic career but more in the nitty gritty phase of collecting data and mining for information that I am supposed to take back to the hordes of books that sit behind me and in storage, books that almost feel like forgotten relics to me now. One keeps reading while doing fieldwork but not with the same fervent intensity as when one is taking classes or reading for exams or residing at the University of Chicago, where everyone reads more than you do, believe me, it is sick there.

Anyway, just recently I had a Weird Science Reading Experience as I intersected 4 different books and pieces: The Transparent Society by David Brin, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, Hacker Culture by Douglass Thomas, and Why nerds are unpopular.

I can’t really get into the vast particles of intersecting themes between these works but one has really taken my fancy because and through these works is the relationship between privacy (or a private self) and accountability (or the public self). I had finished reading Brin who makes a pragmatist argument that privacy can only be secured through freedom and especially openness and accountability in a democratic society. For him, openness, free information flows, and accountability are the chief means to keep a society healthy, that is free and democratic and only when we have such a free, open society can we thus have the luxury of demanding and ensuring privacy. A lack of openness = no privacy for Brin. As he notes:

While free speech seems an indivisible, immiscible right that must be preserved with absolute clarity for liberty’s sake, privacy appears to be more like a liquid, a delicacy that free people can pour for themselves, as much or as little as they choose. Privacy is a wonderful, highly desirable
benefit of freedom…. On the other hand, there can be few compromises when
it comes to protecting the underpinnings of liberty. Those foundations will
crumble unless they are guarded with fervent vigilance. Without both
individual freedom and distributed sovereignty, all of our modern vaunted modern privacy would vanish into legend…

While I have some problems with his his pairing of free markets and democracy and his rendition of free speech as almost the most important condition for freedom (for example, though he notes the importance of freedom of speech for a society where people can self-flourish and demand such things as privacy, he never addresses the fact that social and economic inequities rob people of basic freedoms of health, shelter, nutrition, provisions that might indeed surpass other requsites for a truly healthy democratic society) as well as his very recourse to the trope of “human nature” to explain certain social and psychological currents that do indeed have a strong cultural base (for example, notions of privacy are not as homogeneous and universal as he sometimes presents them!), I tend to agree with him that full-fledged transparency is and vital component of healthy civic, governmental and corporate social life

And I like how he makes the reader think about what the multiple links between freedom, privacy, and openness are given that sometimes information freedom/openness and privacy seem somewhat at odds with each other, often presented as dichotomous, a dichotomy that he partially succeeds in breaking apart.

But it in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” I unexpectedly encountered a nuanced and complex rendition of the relationship between openness and privacy. Jacobs discusses how a busy, relatively open and vibrant street life lends itself towards achieving a balance between cultivating a public and a private life. That is, the street, in which there are casual encounters and some degree of consistent sharing (talking to the bodega owner, bumping into friends at the store, learning about the families on the block from your kid who plays on the street with the other kids etc), gives people the opportunity to learn about others block inhabitants in a sort of limited though socially productive fashion. It forges connections so that a collective street trust builds, a collective trust that allows one to leave keys with the store owners, feel confident that someone is watching out for your kids, have a feeling that you know something about the other people who share this space with you, and grow to feel that the neighborhood is an important place to be and perhaps fight for if any such battles might emerge.

Jacobs notes that if there is no opportunity for limited and public “getting to know each other” then only other situation is to share everything with someone in their private space (think suburb, where you have to go inside someones house for any social interaction) and that for most people that is too much sharing. As she notes:

“In city areas that lack a natural and public casual life, it is common for residents to isolate themselves from each other to a fantastic degree. If mere contact with your neighbors threatens to entangle them in yours, and if you cannot be so careful who your neighbors are a self-selected-upper-middle class people can be, the logical solution is absolutely to avoid friendliness or causal offers of help. Better to stay thoroughly distant.” p. 65

A busy city block where you know others gives people a sort of comfort range in which a balance between public and private interaction can be achieved. The balance flourishes under conditions where there is openness and accountability as you see the coming and goings and doings of friends and neighbors, which is not only great for building street trust but also provides for amusement. But one can always retreat to the privacy of the abode where people tend not to interfere with because precisely there is a PUBLIC space and arena where interaction can largely occur. Yet this goes unnoticed by most inhabitants as this sort of interaction just becomes part of their seamless experience of life on the street and at home:

“A good city street neighborhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help form the people around. This balance is largely made up of small, sensitively managed details, practices and accepted so causally that they are normally taken for granted” p. p 59

As much as privacy is important, feeling like you belong to a place is equally or just as important orhell, more important. One without the other is like drinking lukewarm coffee, really it is just not right. It made me think of the time I lived on 137th and Broadway street in a Dominican neighborhood in NYC. After 6 months there, I finally became part of the street social dynamics as I knew a group of young Dominican boys who borrowed some of my stuff like movies and books. Through them, I got to know about the lives of their families and they got to know about me although interaction was channeled through these kids, kids that provided endless amusement and smiles when I emerged out of the subway onto the busy, seemingly chaotic but really socially organized street. Though I have to admit, these boys like to invade my private space although they were always good, doing it through the street, that is bugging me to come over when they saw me come home. I felt really safe when the kids were out, as that is when parents, many also inhabiting the streets laid a watchful eye, making sure that there was nothing out of the ordinary going on. Because there was some connection there, I had a role or place on this street, that I belonged and given the population size of NYC, this is not an insignificant spatial connection. I miss that street and understand why the neighborhood was able to protest the building of a waste management facility. They were not able to stop the building of it but they got the yardest urban park built on top of the plant complete with ice-rink, baseball fields, indoor and outdoor courts, pools, all overlooking the river. I think it is one of the coolest parks I have ever seen so if you are in NYC venture out to Riverside and 138th-145th street to check it out!

It was, funny enough, on and through IRC when I felt like a balance between having a public and private life re-emerged in my life. This has to do in part with the fact that I have little regularity in my life anymore except for going to the acupuncture clinic once a week; I spend my time jumping from meeting to random meeting to event, to con, trying to socialize with different friends, always in this pre-lanned fashion. No offense to my friends and I am sure I perpetuate this too, but it all seems to planned and contrived to me at times. I would just rather sometimes go to the beach, the lake, the park, the coffee shop, the street and just see who is there without having to pre-ordain the whole thing. The closest I have to this is going to this karaoke event Tuesday nights attended by other hard core enthusiasts who come to belt out terrible tunes once a week. But IRC functions as that space, playing a special role of cultivating a public life where I can drop on by when I am really excited about something or just to chat casually with some people about this or that for a while before I shuffle back to another screen to get back to work. It fills a serious lacuna for many of us who desire a sort of more casual and consistent interaction with a group of folks… Over time, you might find a channel or two where you feel like home. It becomes your street, where you belong at some level.

Beloning… Hmmm, what a topic… It is one that Graham addressing in his Why Nerds Are Unpopular essay which I finally did read. It is worth reading as he has some pretty insightful things to say about the American education system and its sick underbelly, suburbia looking at the structural reasons that give rise to the endless and harsh popularity contests that seem to characterize so many American schools. Institutions that don’t really allow for self-development or learning, Graham characterizes them as prisons of boredom in which the popularity game is what people play and do as there is not much else to do (think Veblen The Leisure Class). The boredom and controlled, contrived nature of suburbia is mirrored and accentuated at school:

“What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren’t told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they’re called misfits.

Since the group has no real purpose, there is no natural measure of performance for status to depend on. Instead of depending on some real test, one’s rank ends up depending mostly on one’s ability to increase one’s rank

And it happens because these schools have no real purpose beyond keeping the kids all in one place for a certain number of hours each day. What I didn’t realize at the time, and in fact didn’t realize till very recently, is that the twin horrors of school life, the cruelty and the boredom, both have the same cause…”

He calls for a type of transparency and openness which will reveal the real nature of school, in part to demystify the experience for kids. But what a shame, I mean, this is an important step, but would it not be better (and I really doubt that we will have this in the near future), if the school were a space that kids actually felt like they belonged to? It happens for many in college in part because there is a high degree of freedom and a stimulating environment but given just how much time we spend in primary, middle, and high school, it would be great to tap into the raw and creative energy that is a 15 year old and channel it into some really cool stuff. I don’t know about you, but I think my energy, enthusiasm, and creativity peaked at the age of 17 and I was lucky enough to go to a small school where you could do as you please when it came to extra-curricular activities and more than half of the teachers treated you as adults. Really, it has been all downhill for me since then, what a shame… I only wish I had a blog then… :)

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