cigarettes, cell phones, and zones of privacy

My writing group workshopped my working draft of Chapter 3 today, and it was a productive conversation. As I was walking home, I was ruminating over exactly what I want to argue in this chapter, which deals with cultural anxieties around the uses of mobile devices and laptops in “public” spaces.

I started to think about the idea, We use objects as interfaces with our environments to create zones of privacy, zones which are never fully in our control and are always permeable, which I don’t think is necessarily that novel. But I was thinking about my cigarette, and the similarities between it and my cell phone — and how I’ll use my smoking habit as an excuse to leave social situations in which I am uncomfortable or feel awkward — to step outside and have a cigarette alone.

Not that I think cigarettes and cell phones function the same, but rather that there is a similarity. I can use either, not to escape a place (though perhaps temporarily), but rather to attempt to control a space, to cut out a piece of the space for myself. But ultimately, I can’t control this space: my privacy is permeable. Even as I was thinking these thoughts, someone “invaded” my personal solitude and ruminations to ask if he could borrow my lighter. Even with headphones in, someone can ask you directions, or for a chair, or to share an outlet, or any numerous things.

Which is perhaps to say it’s a façade of control?

I was thinking about this because time and again, when I talk about this chapter, people ask me what’s the difference between a laptop user in a coffee shop and a book reader, so I started with the similarities — the similarities that, in some ways (but not all), a cigarette shares.

The difference may lie in the degree of secrecy about what one is doing behind a screen — on a Walkman or iPod, what is one listening to? On a screen, what is one doing? A book is less mysterious: we see the cover (though many of us might be aware of the adult Harry Potter readers who put different dust jackets on their book to mask, to make secret, what they are reading).

And of course, there’s the digital elsewhere, which brings in (or takes one to?) electronic others, which other devices don’t do (a book might bring one to an imaginary elsewhere, I suppose)…. more pondering.

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2 Responses to cigarettes, cell phones, and zones of privacy

  1. Matt says:

    Your post reminds me of an article I read recently about the effect of technology on cartooning:

    I found that article through a rebuttal to it, actually, which you can read here:

    which goes along with the comic drawn as a visual rebuttal:

    The point of the whole argument is the question of whether or not technology makes it harder to visually represent a given action someone is taking (best example is: talking on a phone in a cartoon used to involve a land-line, corded phone. Drawing a cell phone that is smaller than a character’s hand is tough), which is itself part of the whole convergence question you’re dealing with here: the functions of a cigarette or a book, while multiple, are presumed to be limited and fairly familiar. Predicting how someone is using it should be possible, and even relatively simple. A “convergent” device (is that a term people use? I don’t even know) has such a range of possible functions that knowing what someone is doing with one becomes much harder to even guess. In terms of the implications of that for privacy: are people less likely to interrupt/intrude when they don’t know what you are doing? Is the “them not knowing” itself a meaningful type of privacy?

    Also: is your diss addressing, at all, the technology specifically designed to ensure privacy? I’m thinking specifically of the screen covers and cases that are designed to make viewing a tablet device impossible except from a straight-on angle, so only the user (and not any passers-by) can see what is on the screen…

    Interesting stuff!

  2. Michael says:

    Thanks for the links, Matt! I’ll look into them. Yes, “convergent device” is a term used 🙂

    I don’t think I’m going to address those sorts of technologies (like screen covers) — largely because they haven’t come up in any of the interviews I’ve done, or in any of the secondary research I’ve done.

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