The Nanny Family
“My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.”
— William Wordsworth
The State of Surveillance
Belmont in the summer can be idyllic. The quiet roads are lined with oak maple and elm trees. You can hear the children playing in their backyards during their summer vacation. At 5 o’clock, you still have three or more hours of daylight left. Enough to get together with your friends after a hard days work and enjoy the evenings chatting with your neighbors while the kids play outside.
I was at a friends house yesterday evening for a get together. The children ran around blowing bubbles at each other. The adults munched on grilled corn and beer. The conversation turned toward the troubles of far away lands, to the war in Gaza and the Malaysian airliner downed by rebels in Ukraine. Or the airliner downed by the Ukrainian government, depending on which newspaper you were reading.
[caption id=”” align=”alignnone” width=”190.0"]
Douthat on “The Parent Trap”[/caption]
As parents of young children, our thoughts quickly moved from those distant tragedies to modern parenting. My host said that his neighbor, a Swede, let his children run around naked. We weren’t sure if that was legal. In fact we weren’t sure if a neighbor could have called the police on the Swede. You see, this kind of “neighborly behavior” is on the increase.
My host mentioned a local newspaper report on a party gone wrong. The owners of a nearby house, had left their high schoolers in charge of the house. Of course the children decided to throw a party. A neighbor called the police. Somehow the other children managed to escape but the hosts’ children were confronted by the police. When the aggrieved parents found out about their children’s failed party, not only did they send their children into custody, they forced the names of all the other partiers from their children. The police went from house to house, taking all the partiers into custody. This act of snitching was reported in glowing terms in the newspaper as law-abiding citizens doing the right thing.
Fear is the Key
We live in Big Brother 2.0 in the name of public safety. Especially if the Orwellian behavior is tied to the safety of our children. Consider the following:
Why did the neighbor call the police?
Because children were involved in underage risky behavior.
Why did the parents make their children snitch?
Because of concern for their children’s safety, and perhaps a threat of lawsuits from other parents.
Why did the newspaper report positively on this incident?
Because our children’s safety is paramount.
The Belmont police station isn’t Al Ghraib. I am sure the children were let off with a warning; no harm done. But still! We talk about big brother. We know how evil totalitarian states making people snoop and snitch on each other. It’s the fear of the state that made people in East Germany and the Soviet Union spy on their friends and neighbors. We are also — rightfully- upset when we learn that the NSA, Google and Facebook have been collecting data about our lives. Then why do we turn around and do exactly the same thing with our children? Children have almost no space left where they are free of adult supervision. Some of that adult company is well intentioned, since parents are much more likely to be “friends” with their children now than earlier generations, but a lot of it is fear that something bad will happen to my children. Governments — both at the local and higher levels — have legislated that fear into the law, by making it illegal for children to be unsupervised in most situations that they encounter.
The Economy of Fear
In this atmosphere, fear rules our lives from the time we are children. We want to know where our children are and what they’re doing at every moment, both in the real world and online. There are genuine threats, from bullies and perverts and other unsavory characters, but like with other threats, our natural response is to greatly restrict freedoms and to use surveillance and data to ferret out suspicious behavior. We worry about the government collecting data, but we are filling the spaces we control with cameras and electronic badges. Anything in the name of a safer, more efficient family, workplace and society. As a cognitive scientist, it’s clear to me that our mental habits replicate themselves across levels. Techniques of data gathering, efficiency and control are so universal now that their use is taken for granted and the first recourse in response to a crisis.
[caption id=”” align=”alignnone” width=”460.0"]
Morozov on Data taking over Politics[/caption]
Is it any surprise that the same fear, when generalized, leads to war with other nations and snooping on our own citizens? My prediction is that this form of generalized fear and control is only going to get worse. Humanity is about to face some of it’s greatest challenges, from climate change to environmental destruction and diminishing water and energy sources. Often, a climate of fear leads to a restricted freedoms for the potential victims of violence. We know how that plays with violence against women. What’s our solution: keep women locked up in the house. We can’t do much about the apocalyptic scenario’s in our near future, but we can all be comforted by making it that much harder for kids to have some fun on their own.