Re-making Boundaries

I study privacy. I’ve done so since joining the field of internet studies eight years ago, and I plan to do so for the foreseeable future. But early in my PhD program, a creeping sense of disillusionment made me question whether this work mattered. I was part of a few research teams studying how people considered privacy in relation to various digital technologies. While analyzing our interview data, I encountered quote after quote of people saying they didn’t care if anyone saw their data or they didn’t think their data had any value. With a few exceptions, it seemed like privacy was not a primary concern for most of the people we interviewed.

Convenience stood out to me as one reason why. Digital technologies made it easy for people to go about their everyday tasks, and this ease outweighed any privacy concerns they may have had. This makes sense given that so many digital technologies are designed to integrate seamlessly into everyday life. Or rather, we (at least those of us in the U.S.) are surrounded by a cultural narrative that tells us technology is supposed to make our lives easier and better, even if that doesn’t necessarily happen in practice.

These technologies aren’t disappearing soon, in part because people want or need them. But they also raise a host of concerns, privacy being just one. Fighting for privacy always struck me as an uphill battle, but confronting this convenience narrative felt like having to scale the face of a cliff.

Until I realized it’s just that. A narrative. A story.

Might we tell a different story?

To do that, we have to see the story and to realize just how deeply it has burrowed into our social psyche. A few weeks ago I started seeing a TV commercial advertising a bank’s mobile app. A mother and her elementary school-age son walk out of a suburban house and toward the car parked in front of it. The mother pulls out her smartphone and the voice-over enthusiastically remarks that with the bank’s app, you can pay your bills from anywhere, anytime! And then get back to what really matters! The mother puts her phone away and her son runs toward her, the commercial ending with their exuberant embrace.

This is the convenience narrative at work. “You can pay your bills from anywhere, anytime!” works as a compelling marketing message because our society treats freedom and choice as the ultimate markers of the “good life.” But perhaps paying bills is not something to do anywhere, anytime. Perhaps paying bills is something to devote one’s full attention to, even if it only takes a few minutes.

Mary Gray summed it up perfectly at a panel yesterday when she remarked, half-jokingly, that she wanted to banish the idea that flexibility is a good thing. The panel, “Post-work Productivity,” was part of the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR), happening virtually this week. That conversation examined how “the promise of ‘anytime, anywhere’ has turned into a risk of ‘all the time, everywhere’.” Although the panelists focused the erosion of boundaries in the context of work, their critique applies to other dimensions of life.

At today’s plenary panel on “Living Data,” Seeta Peña Gangadharan discussed the Our Data Bodies project, which critiques and resists the incursion of data-driven technologies into marginalized communities. She talked of these systems as optimization technology, drawing attention to the logics of efficiency that both underpin them and that they advance. Lately, she’s examined refusal as a response to datafication. This isn’t refusal in the sense of rejecting technology outright, but of questioning the terms of the deal and of imagining new ones. In other words, it’s about resisting and remaking power relations.

We can resist the convenience narrative. We can reject the idea that constantly fluid boundaries are a good thing, or that seamless data flows are the price we have to pay for progress (another word that Mary wanted to banish). When we hear these words, we must ask, flexibility for whom? Progress on whose terms? Convenience at what cost?

During an AoIR discussion on internet and sociality yesterday, Nancy Baym commented that technology’s ability to manifest boundaries in new or different ways is part of what makes it enduringly exciting to study. In examining technologies, and the lives and societies and structures within which they are entangled, we can interrogate those boundaries and ask, “How do we make better ones?”

That’s the kind of privacy research I want to do, that I am doing as I write my dissertation.

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