Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind: Thoughts on Gary Marx’s Essay on “Thomas I. Voire”
The Sociological Quarterly, Volume 43, Number 3, pages 435-438.
Direct all correspondence to Christena Nippert-Eng, Department of Social Sciences, 3301 S. Dearborn, Siegel Hall Suite 116, Chicago, IL 60616; (email: email@example.com).
Modern social life is increasingly about access – demanding it, controlling it, denying it, achieving power through it, and/or being victimized by it. This is due in large part to the daily introduction of new technologies and expectations for their use. These permit the natural human desire and need to watch others to become manifested in increasingly diverse and object-mediated forms of observation. New things are being viewed, listened to, and sensed in new ways, then – things that previously have been thought of as “private.” Because of this, technology undeniably and effectively highlights and intensifies something that has always been problematic in daily life: the boundary between what is private and what is public.
This boundary is the focus of my own work at present 1 and this research has led me to conclude (along with Gary Marx, I think) that highly technological and more traditional forms of surveillance -- and all of the concerns, legal implications, behaviors and other impacts that are associated with it -- are especially interesting places to see what has long been an amazingly poignant source of contention and inattention. Now that it is possible not only to see things that were previously hidden but to store, retrieve, and share that information with relative ease, social issues and propensities that have long been present but often ignored are coming to the fore.
This is not to say that new technologies don’t create whole new avenues through which we must face and flesh out what we believe to be more and less private. We seem to have fairly well-established guidelines regarding what is private and public in face-to-face interactions, for instance – or at least we’re good at pretending that we do. This means that we have a good working model when it comes to issues of bodily privacy and the privacy of our unrecorded thoughts. But newer technologies provide us with great opportunities to see just how badly prepared we are to handle the package of behaviors and related concepts that might be called “informational privacy.” In this regard, in particular, much of today’s workplace, commerce, school life, home life, medical care, law enforcement, public space, and media streams are riddled with the unknown and the unethical.
Modern life also is characterized by an increasingly individualistic twist on another of our species’ attributes: the love of a good story. Narratives that focus on individual characters -- on personal stories -- are some of the most powerful and compelling spaces of contemporary public life. To the extent that these stories can be told through the element of satire, a blockbuster is that much more assured.
If Gary Marx hasn’t done a fabulous job at capturing and demonstrating all of this, I don’t know who has -- or who can. I just love this piece. It may be because I’ve spent an awful lot of time becoming familiar with each and every one of the events, technologies, legal principles, and character types that appear in Voire’s almost Pink Pantheresque life. It may be because I love a good sense of humor, especially when applied to things that could really make you upset if you weren’t determined to find some humor in them. It may be because I’m at a time in my career in which I am looking for people brave and imaginative enough to engage in new ways of doing sociology. But I definitely like what Gary Marx has done here.
It would take a minimum of a dedicated seminar, a stack of books, and an ocean of newspapers -- perhaps even a couple of years’ study -- to show why the elements of the story Marx has created are so poignant. A number of primers come to mind for anyone interested in getting started: Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy, The Right to Privacy (Vintage, 1997), Jeffrey Rosen, The Unwanted Gaze : The Destruction of Privacy in America (Knopf, 2001), Anita Allen, Uneasy Access (Rowman and Littlefield, 1988), Barry Schwartz, "The Social Psychology of Privacy" (American Journal of Sociology 73: 741-752 ), Robert Ellis Smith, Ben Franklin’s Web Site: Privacy and Curiosity from Plymouth Rock to the Internet (Privacy Journal,2000) and Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, “The Right to Privacy” (Harvard Law Review, 4(5): 193 [December 15, 1890]). In fact, since it is so difficult to discuss systematically why Marx’s choices of technologies and legal principles and social behaviors are dead on target, I’ll spend a bit more of my effort here talking instead about why I appreciate the form in which he has presented these observations.
Despite the almost overwhelming legal and technological information packed into this essay -- and despite the sort of creepy edge that occasionally (and rightfully) seeps into the action -- the level of satire present in Tom I. Voire’s story could place it right alongside the best of the “mockumentary” genre of film. For those in the know about surveillance, pop psychology, employment law, and the criminal system, for instance, there are almost too many moments in this essay that demand a good chuckle. Informed outrage battles with head-shaking smiles for me throughout this piece.
Of course, satire only works when you know about its object. Excellent satire requires excellent knowledge of its subject. For instance, readers of Wired, members of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, privacy beat reporters, corporate privacy officers, hackers, and attendees of the annual Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference would perhaps appreciate Marx’s efforts more than the average sociologist. Nonetheless, as it stands, this is a clever, amusing, extremely provocative story that demonstrates its points in an engaging and highly informed fashion. It is a most welcome invitation for attention and analysis on a most important topic.
The wisdom of this choice of form for Marx’s research findings may be questionable for some. Not for me. My favorite university press editor, for instance, once asked me if I’d ever considered writing fiction. “Yes,” I replied. “But I’m afraid my fiction would look so much like my ethnography, what would be the point? Other than the fun of it, that is.” As we see here, though, there are at least a few more interesting answers to this question than I suspected back then.
To begin with, I have learned that the importance of fun – for both authors and readers – is something not to be underestimated. Naturally, people have very different ideas of what’s fun. Wearing a boa constrictor, scuba diving with sharks, Stephen King novels, caviar, academic administration – none of these quite make it onto my list. But, oddly enough, “Tom I. Voire” does.
Across the range of icky, slimy, dark-side things that are hard to forget, Marx has seen to it that Tom, himself, falls more toward the milder end of things than he might have otherwise. This works. It keeps a more innocent (or cynical) reader with the author longer. Tom doesn’t really get to the skin-crawling level unless 1) you know just how entirely possible it is that he could really exist and that almost everything he does can indeed be done, right now and 2) you really believe he might very well do it to you.
Indeed, if you happen to be the kind of person Tom would like to “admire,” this can up our character’s creepy quotient quite significantly, as well as increase the likelihood that you will not find this essay funny, at all. Maybe you’ll even find it insulting. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if women generally found this essay more disturbing than men. And then, of course, there are people who may not see the humor in this essay at all -- like NFL cheerleaders whose past season included games in Philadelphia, victims of identity theft, those who have been stalked, public figures (and their families) whose worst moments have been photographed, taped and televised or published across the mass media, e-mail users whose passphrases have been sniffed and lifted or whose correspondence has been publicly archived, and/or computer users whose hard drives have been impounded and used in a legal case. For any of these folks – and quite a few other categories – it may well be impossible to accept much less remember the lighthearted element of this piece. In fact, once you’ve read this essay, it might be difficult for any reader to recall its humorous aspect when you’re about to use a rather dingy public toilet, or if you’ve just dumped your luggage in a hotel room with a mirror facing the bed. Or even if you’re trying to close out those endless pop-under camera ads that keep appearing during your Web surfing.
However, I think Marx’s walk along the dark-humored edge contributes much to the literary appeal of the essay. We have here a character and a scenario in which the tension between the harmlessness and the harm, the patheticness and the vindictiveness, the victimizer and the victimized, and the need and desire for access and the need and desire for privacy is well maintained. In this way, Marx quite effectively demonstrates the fuzziness of the line separating all of these categories -- and how little it takes to slip from one side of the boundary to the other. He has, in a word, perfectly captured our current ambivalence about all kinds of privacy-related moments, spaces, events, and behaviors.
It is my professional opinion that the list of the individuals who have and will be negatively affected by the erosion of privacy will only continue to expand. For this reason, too, I find Marx’s decision to write this particular piece in the way that he did quite logical and practical. The more readers one can reach with a story as important as this one, the better. It’s too bad, in a way, that it appears in a professional journal rather than, say, the New Yorker (seriously edited, no doubt.)
Classic scholarly writing is not exactly known for embracing the masses. That’s not its point. At times, though, sociologists might be much better off resorting to a more engaging format in order to get our points across, even if it confuses some of our professional colleagues.
As in Miesian architecture, form should follow function. The nontraditional form of one’s insights doesn’t – or shouldn’t -- matter a bit in terms of the correctness of one’s insights. All that matters is that we write our sociology well enough to actually get the results of our research into the venues of circulation that we seek. Of course, one must also be willing to pay the price of rejection by anyone who feels otherwise. (Perhaps we should ask Andrew Greeley what he thinks about this.)
A fiction story is a great pedagogical space, though. It is akin to film, poetry, or novels -- anything that isn’t a classic, scholarly reporting of findings -- in helping to reach people. It is perfectly, intentionally, ironic and important that Marx has chosen a far more accessible form to present his observations on the dangers of accessibility. Nonetheless, choices like these embrace readers/viewers in ways that our traditional forms of writing do not. They also let us reach into ourselves and develop our understandings of our foci of attention -- as sociologists, as writers, as teachers -- in ways that scholarly articles and monographs don’t. It takes talent to be able to let the form in which one presents one’s findings match or emerge out of the findings themselves. It takes not only an ability to feel what might be the best way to present one’s ideas to one’s desired audience but also the storytelling skills to execute this vision as one wishes. In addition, it takes the courage to give it a try.
Ultimately, the best sociological writing invites and allows readers to share the results of an author’s hard work. It offers original conceptual tools and information about empirical patterns and interweaves these with similar disciplinary elements that have already been put out there. The best sociological writing also may provide an opportunity for readers to explore and develop their own concepts and empirical understandings. Rich, engaging descriptions of people, behavior, places, events, and artifacts more openly invite readers to develop their own interpretations of what’s going on. At least one of the goals of authoritative, scholarly reporting is to beat us over the head with the author’s sociological expertise. With the carrot of entertainment, however, the same expert could write a different kind of piece, using her or his authority more quietly, more enticingly, as it were. Its role would be to help filter out endless details and story line options, so that only the most sociologically salient remain. The result might be a better invitation to think, to imagine, along with her or him. Such a piece might be much better at opening discussion rather than closing it.
For sociologists, then, at least two of the implications of this essay are, first, we ought to pay close attention to the actual and potential manifestations of privacy concerns in everyday life. These are important aspects of daily life within a changing culture and society. Second, we should definitely consider writing scholarly insights in less scholarly formats, more often. In fact, it will be interesting indeed to see if the next step in the life of this essay involves Gary Marx negotiating with Hollywood. I suspect they will seriously insist on changing the ending, though.
Christena Nippert-Eng is an associate professor of sociology at the Illinois Institute of Technology. She is the author of Home and Work: Negotiating Boundaries through Everyday Life (University of Chicago Press, 1996). She is currently engaged in a research project entitled "Islands of Privacy," funded by the Intel Corporation and focusing on the experience of privacy at home, in the workplace, and throughout public spaces. She teaches courses on culture, the workplace, space and time, cognitive sociology, and fieldwork methods.
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