The Opacity of Digital Living
We often talk about how the concept of privacy is eroded by digital communications – how we’ve become accustomed to sharing so much more than we did in decades past.
But I argue that the reverse is also true. Our lives are far more private than ever before, and we don’t spend enough time noticing the implications of that.
Adults complain that kids can easily live private online lives today. But we don’t talk as much about how adults are doing it too. I read a wonderful piece on this recently – and can’t find it, unfortunately – about how phones let us live far more opaque lives than we used to.
Once, a kid could sit at the kitchen table and do homework while their parent made phone calls, wrote out bills, followed a recipe for dinner, made a to-do list, watched TV, whatever. And – this is key – the child would be able to observe that adult behavior.
Today, the same things may be happening, but they’re happening using the adult’s phone screen. And that makes a difference bigger than we might realize.
Somehow, phone interaction doesn’t look valuable. To an adult, a kid on a phone won’t seem to be doing schoolwork – they’re goofing off. To a boss or colleague, a person on a phone won’t seem to be doing work – they’re goofing off.
So while adults may be doing the same tasks they always did, it’s easy for kids to assume that adults are playing games or scrolling through social media.
Kids don’t get to see adult life the way that we did.
It’s a new development. But is it a new problem? I’m not sure.
When the telephone was invented, it had great uptake, but people were convinced it was the downfall of truly personal communication: it was awkward and indelicate, that it disconnected people from reality and encouraged superficial conversations. This is a great article in The Smithsonian about that.
When the television was invented, it had great uptake, but people were convinced it was a childish waste of time and couldn’t be used for truly valuable communication – it was good for entertainment but nothing serious.
These arguments sound familiar to anyone who’s talked about texting or social media.
The truth is, the evolution of media both excites us and frightens us. Always has, always will. It’s so inherent to humanity that changing it is a big deal.
So kids are missing learning more about adult life and developing separate worlds sooner. That’s different to how we experienced adolescence. But their kids will have another different experience – just as ours was different to our grandparents’.
I think it isn’t mostly about trying to make life conform to the image you always expected, as it is about trying to notice the life that’s actually unfurling in front of you.
So yeah. Use your phone to accomplish, to learn, to love, to connect. But, yeah, also, put it down more. Enjoy this time before we all get brain chips, while we still have that option.