On Line and Off: an evolution of private versus public spaces

By | November 22, 2010

I don’t think I need to link to any of the hundreds of stories in the media almost daily on the concept of privacy online and on the net to set the scene for my little screed. A particular thought struck me today as I was attempting to explain the chasm between the online world (lets call it virtual headspace or the cloud) and the offline world (both are real, so is this meatspace?) from my own perspective to someone just young enough to be a daughter.

The generation gap in perception and acceptance of the “always on” world was suddenly the larger chasm in our attempts to communicate across this digital divide. And I said to her that I needed to step back and ponder this further before I could even speak because it seemed to me that there was a greater chance for miscommunication and misunderstanding if we said even one word more on the topic.

You see, what I realized was that for those of us who were full grown adults (I was 30 when the interwebz reached my early adopting technophile father’s home) when we started surfing the web in earnest, there is still the perception of a divide between the two worlds whereas for those who still have half a decade or more to go before they’re even 30 its a seamless ubiquitious connectivity thats “normal”. What divide, what are you talking about? Are you facing a personality problem perhaps or a disassociation of some kind? Do sit down and have a cup of tea… ;p And so, for the sake of my own old age and sanity, I had to write, if only so that I could figure it all out even if it was only in my own head.

The key, I think, lies in the distinction between what is public and what is private and how that has evolved. Let me explain a little, at least from my subjective perspective, and perhaps it will resonate with your experience, gentle reader, if you happened to be at least in your late teens in the middle of the 1990s.

Going online was a privilege back then with timing varying between continents and countries depending on the price of access and how hard the currency happened to be. It rapidly became a personal “headspace” because for the first time you were “interacting” (not simply hanging out with your friends or talking on the phone) with this glowing screen in the privacy of your own room (office, corner, cubicle, whatever ) and nobody in the realworld (meatspace?) was privy to this existence in the context of social life and community as it held meaning back then and before that. Suddenly there you were exchanging thoughts and ideas with virtual strangers in every sense of the phrase, from around the world and there, on the world wide web, nobody knew you were a dog.

Thus that became your “private” playground and the public domain was the real world. Until somewhere along the line in the past 3 to 5 years, again depending on where you happened to be and with the rise of “web 2.0″ and the read/write web, what was private has become the public domain and what was considered public (that is, outside the boundaries of your screen and your room etc) has become truly private. Off the grid in all the senses means just that.

No wonder we’re having a fierce debate on the meaning and concept of privacy – it is this era’s version of the generation gap.  And for those of us who grew up writing letters by hand and putting a stamp on them or using a manual typewriter (am I dating myself I wonder? ;p) the challenge now is to face the changed landscape and the matured interstitial space (short videolink*) between the real and the virtual. Or even the evolution of our perception of  private and public spaces, for they are not quite as they used to be anymore.

It was fun while it lasted but teh frontier is suburban now.

[*Imagining the Internet – iTunes free ]

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