Note on revisions -- I have revised this significantly from the first version. To avoid confusion I have removed some of Professor Moglen's previous comments where the text to which they referred has been deleted.

What to do with the Internet Babies?

-- By SethLindner - 23 Dec 2009

Where we are and how we got here

Our attention to the world is a limited resource. We only have so much of it, so we devote it to those things that we believe will give us the most pleasure. There is nothing at all wrong with this. Problems arise when we do not realize that the actions that are meant to please us do so at the expense of others. The actions I speak of are about control.

There is a chance that part of what is happening now is just a temporary reaction to a world that is growing faster than our attention can keep up with it. In other words, this might all just be the growing pains of a paper and pencil society as it learns to send its first, then fifth, then thousandth email. But what I've really been thinking about is not how those of who grew up before the age of the internet are going to fare, but rather what will become of the generation that is born into the internet society.

Is the Next Generation on the Same Path?

I'm sure we've all heard stories of parents being obsessed with their children, but I came across an article recently that made me think about parental obsessions in a new way. There are now websites available that allow parents to keep track of virtually every event in their baby's life. Every time/place they go to sleep or wake up, every time they need a diaper change (1, 2, or both), every time they eat. The idea, it seems, is that parents who can see the trends in their baby's behaviors will be better able to identify problems and optimize their habits.

It sounds like data mining to me. Useful, to be sure, but also a little scary. Reading about this made me think about what kind of message this sends to the child whose first years of life are so meticulously recorded. What does it tell them about their privacy when they learn that every significant and insignificant event in their early lives is stored forever on the internet - just a mouse click and a password away?

It also made me think about what is motivating the parents in my example. These parents, I believe, have come to what they believe is the independent conclusion that control over their children needs to be maximized, because it makes them feel better/safer and because it is somehow better for their children to be "under control". It is quite absurd, really. Parents already exert almost total influence over the lives of their infant children, and yet the subscribers to these services want even more influence. It is dangerous for at least two reasons. First, these parents learn to enjoy exerting control over others and to lower their expectations of what privacy should mean. Second, they pass on the same message to their children, just as it has been passed onto them. The difference for the next generation is that this message comes from such a powerful source -- their parents. I am not an expert here, but there is certainly a reasonable argument that the views of our parents become our own more readily and permanently than other influences. This leaves the children in my example in a dire position. They learn literally from birth that their own privacy is virtually non-existent. And they learn that it is perfectly acceptable and thoroughly satisfying to invade the privacy of someone else as long as you do so to keep them "under control".

Is There Anything We Can Do to Help?

I wonder whether there is anything that parents can do to help prepare their children for the internet society. One might be tempted to simply insulate them, but this seems like it only prolongs the inevitable. One might also be tempted to inundate them with information. Get them used to it early. Sign up for the baby-tracking website right away. This might work, but it is incomplete. What parents really need to do to prepare their children for the internet society is really a very old-fashioned tool. Encourage them to ask questions.

One might begin by teaching them to question the situation anytime their freedom is restricted. Kids do this naturally when it comes to physical restraint, but they may need some encouragement to resist restrictions of intellectual freedom. One might also encourage them to ask about the spread of their ideas. Should they be stifled, or should they be allowed to flourish. This is, I admit, a small step. But I hope that it moves us in the right direction.