Controversies around me

The whirlwind of controversy around the now defunct “Girls Around Me” app by i-Free Innovations evokes no new strangeness for all of us to fear, ponder, or be perplexed by.  At its core, the attention paid to the creepy smartphone app involves the intersection of privacy and technology.  This is a conversation about surveillance, sousveillance, power, control, and agency that many of us have had for ages.  Off the top of my head, the first thing that comes to mind is Jeremy Bentham’s plans for the panopticon— a design for a prison where inmates are surrounded by a central guard tower.  The idea is that since no prisoner can be sure that he/she is being observed by the prison guard in the tower, the prisoner will behave as if she/he is under the scrutiny of the guard.  Bentham’s panopticon has been around and controversial since the late 1700s.

Of course, Bentham’s panopticon and i-Free’s Girls Around Me are poor analogues.  Obviously, comparing them is as off base as prison cells and cellular phones.  Yet, they do have several questions in common:  Who has power over whom, and is that power legitimate? Who gets to decide what/whom to watch? Can the watched turn the tables on the watched?  And, of course, the all too tricky agency question: If someone wants to be watched, shouldn’t that person be watched?  Likewise, if, say for the sake of this topic, a woman chooses a lax privacy setting, shouldn’t she have the right to do so?  Could she not choose to be a part of a surveilled environment?

The last question is precisely one of the questions that Forbes staff writer, Kashmir Hill, poses.  She rightly points out that the reaction to the app is, on balance, alarmist and at worst sexist.  I largely agree with her arguments.  Yet, I come to a somewhat different conclusion.  At the conclusion of her article, Hill argues that such apps point to the new privacy reality in society, and one should learn to accept and live within the new norm.  I disagree.  What such apps brings to the fore is that we should question the norm.  There is nothing predetermined by these technologies nor are they inevitable.  What these technologies highlight is that our current ways of thinking about them are insufficient.  The technologies that afforded the creation of “Girls Around Me” ought to incite us to devise and debate new norms.

Hill’s post also highlights that not all men (and I assume she presumes those who downloaded this app are mainly men) are rapists or creepy people.  Point taken.  Likewise, not all viewers of the notorious “Two Girls One Cup” viral video phenomenon are aroused by scat.  Certainly some were aroused by this type of fetish pornography; and, probably some/many who downloaded “Girls Around Me” are creepy-stalker-types.  But, as Hill points out, who these downloaders are or are not might not be as important a concern as the boogeyman that gets created.  In the absence of any creepy-stalker-type guys that we can point to, fear of the potential evildoer serves no one.  We don’t have to think that hard to come up with examples of how fear of evil has harmed us more than actual bad guys.  After all, John Brownlee, the author of the original article that brought the app to most of our attention, downloaded the app not because he is some crazy stalker.  Rather, Brownlee seems to have downloaded the app because of its oddity.  While Brownlee’s conclusion is that such apps show that there needs to be more education about the perils of lax privacy settings, Hill points out that this is at best alarmist and at worst sexist.

The claim of sexism is where Hill shines.  Quoting Brownlee: “The settings determining how visible your Facebook and Foursquare data is are complicated, and tend to be meaningless to people who don’t really understand issues about privacy. ” Hill points out that Brownlee’s article is problematic because it presumes that the privacy settings are too complicated for these women.  She argues that Brownlee forecloses the possibility that these women might be willing participants.  Agreed.  To the first point: Brownlee’s assumption that because these women wound up being visible to “Girls Around Me” because they did not understand the ‘complicated’ technology sounds pretty sexist.  By stating this, Brownlee’s article becomes guilty of being sexist while hiding behind the much more socially palatable ‘privacy setting talk.’

To the second point: Hill’s point that some people might want to be found at first seems like a stretch.  However, upon further reflection, I suppose that her assertion might not be so far-fetched.  After all, isn’t that similar to what Steve Mann means by sousveillance?  Not to mention, as her fellow Forbes writer pointed out:  What about Ai Weiwei’s subversion of China’s surveillance society? To put it another way, if we are going to define privacy as the power to keep aspects of one’s life as hidden, then does it not seem ungenerous to presume that these women could not possibly want to be found when they were found precisely because they actively used Foursquare, whose very purpose is to make available one’s location?  Moreover, as Hill argues, such a position implies that these women’s bodies are the rightful site of a moral battle.  I agree with Hill.  When discussion of privacy becomes code for talking about visibility and women’s bodies while their agency gets ignored or their cognitive ability to make those choices get minimized, that’s pretty damn sexist.

But, that’s as far as I can side with Kashmir Hill’s argument.  I spent the majority of this post detailing the way that Hill problematizes Brownlee’s coverage of “Girls Around Me” because she parallels my own thinking of this controversy as it unfolded.  Except, I’ve come to a different conclusion.  While I am by no means well read enough in feminist scholarship to articulate an adequately nuanced argument, I do identify as a scholar of identity and power.  Perhaps, this is why Kashmir Hill and I arrived at different conclusions.  Hill seems to conclude that such privacy realities wrought by technologies such as Foursquare and Facebook imply a new reality where privacy expectations of a pre-Internet era are no longer reasonable and we should adapt our expectations to this new norm.  I see the “Girls Around Me” controversy as the spark that should evoke a conversation about what post-Internet social norms ought to look like.  We ought to question what we want privacy to look like and not adapt to a privacy norm that seems to have arisen out of some sort of technologically determined reality.  To do otherwise is to ignore that technology is created by people and corporations who must interact in a social world and have agency over technology.

Power circulates through the discourses and the narratives that people speak.  It seems to me that Hill sees technology as ushering in a new privacy norm because post-Internet technologies seem incongruent with a pre-Internet narrative about privacy.  Yes, changing how we talk about privacy doesn’t prevent another i-Free Innovation-like company from creating another controversial app.  But, those same pre-Internet narratives about how society ought to relate to technology were the very reasons that Foursquare turned off i-Free’s access to the API that made “Girls Around Me” possible.  Likewise, John Brownlee may or may not be a sexist.  I’m willing to bet that he’s probably not and that he meant well.  That Brownlee made some problematic presumptions probably has more to do with the sexist narratives surrounding women that still circulate in the United States than how sexist he may be.  My point is, while the app “Girls Around Me” is pretty despicable, the controversy has more to do with how we relate to each other than the technology.  After all, isn’t how we relate to each other really what we mean when we debate privacy issues?  In a sense, isn’t all technology an instantiation of how we relate (or talk about relating) to one another?