You stare at a screen in your home or in your hand. You own it; it is passive and glows — all things that seem to promise safety and a bounded space. But the feeling of sending an e-mail or text or instant message is at odds with its reality. You feel in a zone that is private and ephemeral. But the Internet is public and forever. This is the disconnect of Internet communication. It begins to explain why people, sophisticated people, continue to send damaging e-mails and text messages that document them breaking the law and betraying their families. These make the headlines. Other consequences of the disconnect show up in the inner life of the generation that has grown up with always-on/always-on-you connectivity. The disconnect shapes their psychological and political sensibility.
Dawn, eighteen, "scrubs" her Facebook pages just before she receives her college acceptance letters. She says, "I didn't want stories and pictures about high school parties and boys out there. I want a fresh start." But she could only delete so much. Her friends have pictures of her on their pages and messages from her on their walls. All of these will remain. And on the Internet, the worlds "delete" and "erase" are metaphorical; files, photographs, mail, and search history are only deleted from your sight. All of this upsets Dawn. She says, "It's like somebody is about to find a horrible secret that I didn't know I left someplace."
The psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson argued that adolescents needed an experience of "moratorium," a time and space for relatively consequence-free experimentation. They need to fall in and out of love with people and ideas. I have argued that the Internet provides such spaces and is thus a rich ground for working through identity. But over time, it has become clear that the idea of the moratorium space does not easily mesh with a life that generates its own electronic shadow. Over time, many find a way to ignore or deny the shadow. For teenagers, the need for a moratorium space is so compelling that they will recreate it as fiction. And indeed, leaving an electronic trace can come to seem so natural that the shadow seems to disappear. We want to forget that we have become the instruments of our own surveillance.
In the spirit of keeping the shadow at a distance, some work at staying uninformed. Julia, eighteen, says "I've heard that school authorities and local police can get into your Facebook," but doesn't want to know the details. "I live on Facebook" she explains, and "I don't want to be upset." A seventeen-year-old girl thinks that Facebook "can see everything," but even though "you can try to get Facebook to change things," it is really out of her hands. She sums up: "That's just the way it is." A sixteen-year-old girl says that even without privacy, she feels safe because "No one would care about my little life." For all the talk of a generation empowered by the Net, the question of online privacy brings out claims of intentionally vague understandings and protests of impotence. This is a life of resignation: teens are sure that at some point their privacy will be invaded, but that this is the course of doing business in their world.
I grew up with my grandparents who were frightened by the McCarthy era. A government that spied on its citizens; this is what their families had fled. In Eastern Europe, my grandmother explained, you assumed that other people read your mail. This never led to good. When someone knows everything, everyone can be turned into an informer. She was proud to be in America where things were different. Every morning, we went together to the mailboxes of our apartment building. And many days, she would tell me as if it had never come up before, "In America, no one can look at your mail. It's a federal offense. That's the beauty of this country." For me, and from the earliest age, this civics lessons at the mailbox joined together privacy and civil liberties. I think of how different things are for today's teenagers who accommodate to the idea that their e-mail might be scanned by school authorities and that their online identities might be tampered with. Not a few sum up their position on all of this by saying in one way or another: "The way to deal is to just be good."
But sometimes a citizenry should not "be good." You have to leave room for this, space for dissent, real dissent. You need to leave technical space (a sacrosanct mailbox) and mental space. The two are intertwined. We make our technologies and they, in turn, make and shape us. My grandmother made me an American citizen and a civil libertarian in front of a row of mailboxes in Brooklyn. I am not sure what to tell and 18-year-old who thinks that Loopt (the application that uses the GPS capability of the iPhone to show you where your friends are) seems creepy but notes that it would be hard to keep it off her phone if all her friends had it. "They would think I had something to hide."
In democracy, perhaps we all need to begin with the assumption that everyone has something to hide, a zone of private action and reflection, a zone that needs to be protected. Life with an electronic shadow provokes anxieties that lead today's teenagers to look toward a past they never knew. This nostalgia of the young looks forward because it may remind us of things that are worth protecting. So, for example, teens talk longingly about the "full attention" that is implicit when someone sends you a letter or meets with you in a face-to-face meeting. And poignantly, they talk about seeking out a pay phone when they really want to have a private conversation.
The Internet teaches us to rethink nostalgia and give it a good name. I learned to be a citizen at the Brooklyn mailboxes. To me, opening up a conversation about rethinking the Net, privacy, and civil society is not backward-looking nostalgia or Luddite in the least. It seems like part of a healthy process of democracy defining its sacred spaces.