February 25, 2007

Public and private life

Posted in Books, Education, Life at 2:19 am by mj

Danah Boyd on ending relationships in the internet age, and the divide between the personal and the social:

The Internet has allowed us to take the most “intimate” thoughts and ideas and perform them in a public before witnesses. This makes real every neurosis and stupid act – stuff that might simply have slipped away before. It makes it possible to be heard. But at the same time, when you know you’re going to be heard, you have to think twice. Do you really want that fleeting thought to be that real, to be that present for collective memory?

Danah is eloquent and nearly poetic as always; I did not quote the best part of her post, so be sure to click through.

The real reason this stuck out in my mind is because she quoted Hannah Arendt, who was my favorite thinker in college. I borrowed several of Arendt’s books from a professor my sophomore year, and went on from there; her densest writing would fill me with a semester’s worth of references in a single paragraph, and she’d draw connections through the centuries that I never would have made. (I’m not sure I could make it through any of her books at this point.) I can recall those days fondly now, even though I know they were far from my happiest days.

Arendt also made another argument, though, that the private life is absolutely vital to life at all. Not just to thinking (a case she also made), but to development and resilience. The case that I remember best is from The Crisis In Education, which I just tracked down:

These four walls, within which people’s private family life is lived, constitute a shield against the world and specifically against the public aspect of the world. They enclose a secure place, without which no living thing can thrive. This holds good not only for the life of childhood but for human life in general. Wherever the latter is consistently exposed to the world without the protection of privacy and security its vital quality is destroyed. In the public world, common to all, persons count, and so does work, that is, the work of our hands that each of us contributes to our common world; but life qua life does not matter there. The world cannot be regardful of it, and it has to be hidden and protected from the world.

I’ll continue on, because the next paragraph is as relevant this month as it ever was:

Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness and, however strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all. This may indeed be the reason that children of famous parents so often turn out badly. Fame penetrates the four walls, invades their private space, bringing with it, especially in present-day conditions, the merciless glare of the public realm, which floods everything in the private lives of those concerned, so that the children no longer have a place of security where they can grow.
[…]
It is the peculiarity of modern society, and by no means a matter of course, that it regards life, that is, the earthly life of the individual as well as the family, as the highest good; and for this reason, in constrast to all previous centuries, emancipated this life and all the activities that have to do with its preservation and enrichment from the concealment of privacy and exposed them to the light of the public world. This is the real meaning of the emancipation of workers and women, not as persons, to be sure, but insofar as they fulfill a necessary function in the life-process of society.

The last to be affected by this process of emancipation were the children, and the very thing that had meant a true liberation for the workers and the women–because they were not only workers and women but persons as well, who therefore had a claim on the public world, that is, a right to see and be seen in it, to speak and be heard–was an abandonment and betrayal in the case of the children, who are still at the stage where the simple fact of life and growth outwieghs the factor of personality.

I’m interested in whether Danah–who lives and breathes teenage culture–agrees with Arendt on this.

The case is often made pragmatically, that your words and deeds online will be seen by your future college admissions boards and employers and lovers and, yes, enemies. But is this liberation destroying life worth living, or are we adapting and, eventually, will better understand ourselves because we (humans in general, not me, because, well, I’m a lost cause) grew up making distinctions between public and private acts that before were (arbitrarily) made for us?

Oy, 2AM. Would I were twenty-three…

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