Monday, December 8, 2014

It’s Complicated 1: Escaping on a Raft in Cyberspace

Farewell to freedom on the Adriatic and to days of wild abandon. – Hayao Miazaki

Are we heading toward a world in which our activities in the physical world are totally institutionalized so that our only “free” time is the time we spend online? That’s what I’ve been thinking as I read danah boyd’s new book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale UP 2014). But before I get to that – I’m only three chapters in, anyhow – let me tell you about my childhood. It’s not that my childhood was particularly interesting or significant, but simply that in one crucial way it was quite different from the lives of the 150+ teens boyd interviewed for the book: within broad limits, I could go where I wanted, when I wanted; these teens cannot.

From there I follow boyd to a discussion of the social management of anxiety and then shift gears and end up patrolling the backwoods in the antebellum South, looking for escaping slaves and other miscreants. That’s when we meet up with Huck and Jim riding the bit stream to freedom, thereby returning me to dana boyd. You’ll see, it’ll all work out in the end.


Confined to Quarters

I grew up in the 1950s and 60s in Richland Township, a suburb of Johnstown in Pennsylvania about 70 miles east of Pittsburgh. My neighborhood bordered on small farms and forest. As a teenager I had to be home for dinner, be home before dark, get my homework done, and practice my trumpet. I had various activities as well, scouts, school clubs (band and others) that took time, but they didn’t fill my schedule. I could, and did, roam freely about the neighborhood. I had to tell my mother generally where I was going, but that was it.

As I’ve indicated, that’s not the case with the teens that boyd interviewed. This is important, for it is the main reason many of them spend so much time online. Cyberspace is the only place they can hangout with their friends without adult intrusion into their lives (pp. 20-21):
The social media tools that teens use are direct descendants of the hangouts and other public places in which teens have been congregating for decades. What the drive-in was to teens in the 1950s and the mall in the 1980s, Facebook, texting, Twitter, instant messaging, and other social media are to teens now. Teens flock to them knowing they can socialize with friends and become better acquainted with classmates and peers they don’t know as well. They embrace social media for roughly the same reasons earlier generations of teens attended sock hops, congregated in parking lots, colonized people’s front stoops, or tied up the phone lines for hours on end. Teens want to gossip, flirt, complain, compare notes, share passions, emote, and joke around. They want to be able to talk among themselves—even if that means going online.
While boyd has a great deal to say about just what they do, I want to leave that aside for now. Much of what she says is generally about life online, written for people who don’t spend much time online. I do, so the world she describes is familiar to me even though I’m old enough to be a grandfather to the people she’s interviewed.

Here’s a bit about one of boyd’s subjects (p. 89):
My interview with Myra, a middle-class white fifteen-year-old from Iowa, turned funny and sad when “lack of time” became a verbal tick in response to every question I asked her about connecting with friends. From learning Czech to track, from orchestra to work in a nursery, she told me that her mother organized “98%” of her daily routine. Myra did not like all of these activities, but her mother thought they were important. She was resigned to them. Lack of freedom and control over her schedule was a sore topic for Myra. At one point, she noted with an exasperated tone that weekends were no freer than weekdays: “Usually my mom will have things scheduled for me to do. So I really don’t have much choice in what I’m doing Friday nights. . . . I haven’t had a free weekend in so long. I cannot even remember the last time I got to choose what I wanted to do over the weekend.” Myra noted that her mother meant well, but she was exhausted and felt socially disconnected because she did not have time to connect with friends outside of classes.
It adds up to this (p. 90):
From wealthy suburbs to small towns, teenagers reported that parental fear, lack of transportation options, and heavily structured lives restricted their ability to meet and hang out with their friends face to face. Even in urban environments, where public transportation presumably affords more freedom, teens talked about how their parents often forbade them from riding subways and buses out of fear. At home, teens grappled with lurking parents. The formal activities teens described were often so highly structured that they allowed little room for casual sociality. And even when parents gave teens some freedoms, they found that their friends’ mobility was stifled by their parents. While parental restrictions and pressures are often well intended, they obliterate unstructured time and unintentionally position teen sociality as abnormal. This prompts teens to desperately—and, in some cases, sneakily—seek it out. As a result, many teens turn to what they see as the least common denominator: asynchronous social media, texting, and other mediated interactions.
And this (p. 103):
Examining attitudes toward public spaces in the 1980s, geographer Gill Valentine documents how parental concerns about childhood safety—often discussed through the lens of “stranger danger”—have resulted in children being restricted from public spaces. Public parks and malls were at the center of parental anxieties because they were seen as sites where teens could encounter harmful strangers. Not all of the focus was on dangerous older men; the visible presence of youth gangs was also a concern for many parents. Although unease about delinquents date back decades, 1980s and 1990s parents were especially fearful that manipulative peers would conscript vulnerable youth into gangs.
Such fear existed when I was young. “Juvenile delinquent” was a well-known term and, during the 1950s, the comic book industry was all but destroyed by a hysterical campaign worried about children’s minds being rotted by violent, salacious, and just plain weird comics. But the world boyd describes is one where the screws have been turned up a notch.

What’s going on? I can’t rightly say, but I’m suspicious, and my suspicions have directed my attention to the canonical heart of American literature. But let’s not go there just yet. Let’s build up to it.

Are These Fears Warranted?

The question we’ve got to ask ourselves is whether or not these fears are warranted. Is the contemporary world really more dangerous than the one I grew up in during the 1960s? Or, alternatively, were my parents and their peers too lax in their parenting?

The question is serious, and tricky. I’ve got a bias in the matter and it’s that the fears are not warranted. My bias tells me that boyd is correct when she observes (p. 95):
Restrictive adults act on their anxieties as well as their desire to protect youth, but in doing so, they perpetuate myths that produce the fears that prompt adults to place restrictions on teens in the first place. But this cycle doesn’t just undermine teens’ freedoms; it also pulls at the fabric of society more generally.
I agree with her on that last point. A bit later she continues: (pp. 95-96):
The concern that we’ve become disconnected as a society has become a common trope over the past two decades, and both scholars and the media have blamed everything from changes in food acquisition to neighborly isolation. Whatever the cause, fear and distrust of others is palpable and pervasive. Driving around the United States, I was shocked by the skepticism many parents held for other parents.
It’s that fear and distrust of others that I find so bothersome.

And so, by degrees, boyd is led to the literature on moral panics (p. 105):
When fears escalate out of control, they produce what sociologist Stanley Cohen calls “moral panics” as adults worry about the moral degradation that will be brought on by the shifting social force. A moral panic takes hold when the public comes to believe that a cultural artifact, practice, or population threatens the social order. Moral panics that surround youth typically center on issues of sexuality, delinquency, and reduced competency. New genres of media—and the content that’s shared through them—often trigger such anxieties. Eighteenth-century society saw novels as addictive and therefore damaging to young women’s potential for finding a husband. Introduced in the 1930s, comic books were seen not only as serving no educational purpose but as encouraging young people to get absorbed in fantasy worlds and to commit acts of violence. In the mid-1950s Elvis Presley’s vulgar, gyrating hips prompted great concern that broadcasting him on TV would corrupt teens. These are but a few of the unsubstantiated moral panics surrounding youth’s engagement with earlier forms of popular media.

What we’re witnessing, I believe, is the social management of what the psychologists call “free-floating anxiety,” anxiety that is real, but has no identifiable cause. With that in mind, I want to turn to another time and place, one where they had a very different mechanism for anxiety management.

The Social Management of Anxiety in the Antebellum South

Before actually looking at the institution of patrol in the antebellum South, I want to turn to an old standby, an essay I read in my freshman year of college and that was published by Talcott Parsons in 1947, “Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World” (full text online HERE). Here’s how I perhaps too casually summarized that article in a post on America’s Craziness that I published in 3 Quarks Daily:
At some length and with great sophistication Parsons argued that citizens of Western nations project many of their aggressive impulses onto other peoples so that, in attempting to dominate those peoples, they are, in a psychological sense, attempting to attain mastery over themselves. I fear this problem is not only a Western one, but that’s a side issue in this context. It’s not merely that I’m writing about America, but that America remains the most powerful nation in the world, with by far the largest military establishment. Through that establishment America has tethered the rest of the world to its internal psychodynamics.
Notice that generalization I stuck in there, from Western nations to nations in general. I go on in that post to point out that America, in effect, has its own internal colony of Others toward which it can vent aggressive impulses. I’m thinking, of course, of African-America. Prior to the Civil War most African-Americans were enslaved. While that’s long gone, racism is not, and these days African-American men constitute a disproportionate segment of America’s prison population, which is the world’s largest, not merely by percentage, but by absolute numbers.

With that in mind, let’s take a brief look at patrol. I’m quoting from the account given by Joel Williamson (The Crucible of Race, Oxford, 1984, p. 18):
The patrol began as early as the seventeenth century, and it varied in constitution and function from state to state and from time to time. In the colonial period it was usually made up of masters and overseers, people with a direct stake in slavery who banded together with full legal authority to enforce the laws of slavery. In the nineteenth century the constitution of patrol shifted; its essential feature in this new phase was that, typically, every white male of military age and capacity–not only masters and overseers–was required to serve, sometimes without pay [emphasis mine]...The patrol had authority not only over slaves, but over free blacks as well, and over any white person who might be suspected of conspiring with blacks in illegal activities. It was, in short, a system in which virtually all white men came together to enforce the racial establishment. In the patrol every white man was a policeman in the face of every black person.
As the possibility of slaves escaping and even in engaging in armed insurrection was real, being on the lookout for trouble was prudent. The patrols were on the lookout for real danger, not merely imagined danger.

What strikes me, though, is the pervasiveness of the institution. As the practice evolved it came to include, not only those with direct responsibility for slaves, the masters and overseers, but every able-bodied white male. Many of those white men would have been poor, economically not much better off than the slaves, though legally, of course, they were free men. One cannot help but think that, in conscripting them, the institution of control worked to keep them under thumb as well.

The existence of slavery carried with it the reality of resistance to slavery. That possibility was surely a source of anxiety among the slave owners and their employees and dependents. Even as patrolling was a means of controlling the slaves, it also served to control the anxiety of the patrollers. And it did so day after day, week after week, and year after year.

Two Teens and a Runaway Slave on the Mississippi

It was the brilliance of Mark Twain to make a connection between the status of children in society and the status of slaves. He’s best know for two books, Tom Sawyer, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tom Sawyer was the first of the two to be published and, as the title suggests, it centered on the activities of its eponymous hero, Tom Sawyer. But Tom included his good friend, Huck Finn, in his exploits.

And Tom figures in Huck’s book as well, though not until the end. Huck’s major counterpart is an escaped slave, Jim, who is a married man with children of his own. The fact that this book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, centers on the lives of two teens – Tom and Huck were 13 – now has a salience for me that it never had before.

Like slaves in the antebellum South, children do not have full standing before the law. They are subject to adults having legal authority over them. Children will, of course, outgrow their subject status in time, while slaves could not. That difference is obviously important. But Twain told this story about children who were still several years from their majority. He wanted to examine the fact that they were as subject to adult authority as a slave was.

Huck’s father was the town drunk and Huck decided to runaway as a matter of survival; he feared that one day his father might beat him to death in a drunken rage. But he was also fleeing the Widow Douglas, who was caring for him and who set out to “sivilize” him, dressing him in proper clothes, forcing him to eat supper at the right time, with the correct manners, forbidding him to smoke, insisting on reading to him “about Moses and the Bulrushers”, and so forth. Jim, of course, was escaping to freedom and hoped, once he’d established himself elsewhere, to bring his family after him.

They made an astonishing pair, for Huck treats Jim as a black mammy who soothes the wounds inflicted by his abusive father and constricting mother-surrogate. In Jim Huck finds the nurturing parent he so desperately needed, prompting Leslie Fiedler to remark (in Love and Death in the American Novel) that Jim gives Huck:
. . . pure affection . . . without the threat of marriage . . . the protection and petting offered by his volunteer foster-mothers without the threat of pious conformity . . . the friendship offered by Tom without the everlasting rhetoric and make-believe. Jim is all things to him: father and mother and playmate and beloved . . . calling Huck by the names appropriate to their multiform relationship: “Huck” or “honey” or “chile” or “boss,” and just once “white genlman.”
That is an absolutely extraordinary statement, but it is true. At the very heart of American literature we have this story of a dispossessed white boy who finds his deepest emotional satisfaction in the bosom a black man. For the first time in his life Huck feels at home, on a raft in the Mississippi with an escaped slave standing in for his parents.

This paring set the stage for a recurring narrative in 20th century American popular culture. It is a story about a white child who sneaks into a club to hear the black musicians play jazz, or, in the case of the real Elvis Presley, the back of a black church... This scenario was featured in Michael Curtiz's movie Young Man With a Horn (1950) where young Rick Martin idolized Art Hazzard–this movie was, in turn, based on Dorothy Baker's novel, of the same name, based loosely on the life of Bix Beiderbecke, the first major white jazz musician. Then we have Hollywood producer George Lucas (responsible for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies) creating a two-hour episode of his television show The Indiana Jones Chronicles in which young Indiana gets jazz lessons from Sidney Bechet.

More generally, we have white teens dancing to black music and causing panic among their parents. First it was swing, then rock and roll, and then hip-hop. At every stage the arbiters of middle-class culture fear that the country’s going to hell in a hand basket and parents are worried that their kids are in danger and up to no good.

That brings us back where we began, with dana boyd’s account of teens online. It’s where they go to be free. And that’s depressing. Is that where we’re headed, to a world so constrained and regulated that we can find freedom and dignity only online? But how will we find it there, as the online world is subject to constant surveillance? Is there no way out?

* * * * *

What’s next? As I’ve said, I’m only three chapters (plus bits here and there) into the book. I’ll certainly want to comment on the rest of the book. But, if I’ve got time, I’d also like to talk about graffiti as a social space, for it was started by teens and it makes an interesting counterpoint to the cyberspace that boyd examines.

1 comment:

  1. ."Cyberspace is the only place they can hangout with their friends without adult intrusion into their lives"

    I love the fact they also use it to control and assert dominance in physical space. "get out I am speaking to my friends" The mics pick up wider conversations, very 'bad manners' to interrupt unless of course its in the sporting shooters interest to engage in further real world conversation or simply dismiss its domestic servant with the gruff 'get out I hate you'.