Friday, January 5, 2007

A word we think we know...

Much of Bickford's article turns on the concept of privacy, but we have to be careful about what's going on with that term here. According to environmental psychologist Irv Altman (1975), the psychological concept of privacy has to do with controlling the flow of information, both inward and outward. For instance, if people can overhear us, or if we're interrupted by others, then we don't have enough control over the transmission of information. Altman argues that we modulate privacy in four ways:
  1. escape, or moving away from the stimulus (leaving a noisy room, for instance)
  2. division, or erecting a barrier between us and the stimulus (closing a door, for instance)
  3. withdrawl, or body language that indicates you don't want to be disturbed (not making eye contact in the elevator, a group of friends in a close circle that disinvites others from entering, etc.)
  4. anonymity, or going to a place where information flow doesn't matter because people don't know who you are and so the information isn't really linked to a person (every small-town gay kid who grew up and moved to a big city knows about this one)
There's a problem here, of course, which is that all of these are phrased as negatives. If you invert each of those actions -- entering a noisy room, opening a door, smiling at someone in the elevator, or joining a close community -- you're still modulating privacy, but in the positive-information direction. Anyway, we do these things in both directions a thousand times a day.

The other common definition of "privacy" is the economic one, the opposite of "public" in terms of ownership -- private property, private club, privately-held corporation, etc. Public park, private yard; public road, private drive.

Bickford's use, I think, is a complex blending of the two. She's certainly talking about "privatization" in terms of ownership -- the rec center that's only open to members of the development, the independent security force that we pay for. But why do we want to own these things? Why do we want to be removed from people who aren't like us?

Even though her discussion is largely around the physical environment and its economic structure, she (and many of you in your blog posts) have talked about all four of Altman's privacy-mechanism behaviors:
  1. escape, or moving away from the city and into the suburbs
  2. division, or creating walls and gates and guardhouses
  3. withdrawl, or the "border vaccums" (Bickford 369) that pull our gated communities out into the cornfields so they don't even abut the next gated community (another example of withdrawl is the common modern house form that places the garage at the forefront, with the house hunkered down behind it for protection)
  4. anonymity, or not making effort to know your neighbors.

So what's the "information" that we're trying to control in these larger social ways? What do we not want to be exposed to, or to expose ourselves to? Bickford raises some possibilities on p. 365, but those are pretty theoretical. Let's be specific.


peterjames said...

I have always just chalked up this "control of information" to me being an introvert.....I guess I never really gave it much thought in a broader sense....perhaps that control of information goes back to something Bickford stated on pg. 357, to paraphrase, outside(public)=exposure=vulnerability......I have no idea how it got this way....I guess you could argue that, to an extent, its primal... in general terms the "outside" is inherently uncontrollable.... danger could be around any corner.... "inside" is safe...I can control whats "inside".. perhaps some cultures are forced to come to grips with these concerns and deal with them in a more positive way because of geographical conditions and unavoidable interaction with others..... that has not been the case here, where I can indulge those fears by hitting the interstate and going somewhere thats "safe"......outside=exposure=vulnerability......if outside=exposure=candy drops and juji fruits, we probably wouldnt be having this discussion.....

Karrick said...

Is it judgement that people protecting themselves from? I think it could be a large part of it. Is this also the reason that people like to surround themselves with people that are similar to them? There are a few neighborhoods that bodily harm might come to you if you aren't protected... but really? So if it isn't bodily harm, it must be emotional harm. What is more devastating to a person than to be judged, and in that judgement, humilitated or compared. I'm not a specifically private person. I live in a fairly mixed older neighborhood, I know my neighbors, and I get the morning paper in my undershorts. Oh... maybe people are protecting themselves from that!!! Yikes.

Carli Sekella said...

I like the idea that "privacy" is about ownership, but to take it one step farther to say that it is about being in control. One can gain their privacy by leaving the noisy area, avoiding eye contact in an elevator, buying a house far from the street - because they are in control of the situation. Conversely, one does not feel their privacy invaded when they take control by entering the crowded room, making eye contact in the elevator, buying a flat in the city center, etc. Its when one feels out of control that they may perceive their privacy invaded - when someone asks a lot of questions, stops over uninvited, or you find the neighbor kids on your lawn.

Tim Shremshock said...

It seems to me that privacy is a state of mind, a state of personal perspective which CAN be switched in either direction; towards one of exposure and exploration or towards one of withdrawl. Don't forget when you are in the right state of mind, exposure to the unknown can be exciting and desireable. For example, when on vacation you are constantly exposed to new places, people, and situations with no knowedge of the outcome. Yet you are still able to to "feel" safe and revel in the unknown. But are you really safe??? You cannot be safer than when you were close to home; where you know all the rules and expectations that society has establised. So how do we create that state of mind? What environments foster that perpective?

A few years ago my family and I took our first trip to Manhattan for my daughter's dance competition. I was dreading the trip. I was born and raised here in the midwest and was not looking forward to New York. The crowds, the smells, crime, yada, yada, yada, but the lack of knowledge of where to go and how to get there was my biggest fear. I didn't feel I would be in control and did not know how I would get control.

But once I got there, I couldn't get enough. I met all kinds of wonderful people, took the subways wherever they would take us, seeing new sights, experiencing new spaces. It was wonderful. I still recall the smells of Times Square with fondness (I gross). I know I wouldn't have the same feeling if my neighbohood smelled that way. I am not really sure how my perpective was changed so dramatically. What flipped the switch for me? If I boiled it down to its essence, I found the incredible diversity to be the most exciting part of the trip. Is it that once I WAS exposed and could do nothing about it, my inhibitions had no safe harbor?

Tim Oates said...

In my personal experience I have always felt that if I go and expose myself I will get hurt. So I would retract myself from social interaction. I am one of those individuals in high school which received a lot of teasing. This is applicable to this conversation. We as society have a problem with opening ourselves or exposing our faults to society for fear of judgement. Look at the situation with the Salem Witch trials of 1692. The search of people practicing witchcraft all over the world took place for may years from 1450's to around the mid-18th century. It goes to show that individuals are very reluctant to expose our own opinion or belief because of the retaliation from society. So instead we express our opinion or beliefs to those that you feel comfortable with and over a lifetime your network of people in society you trust expands. But you will never get society to embrace others openingly.